What are feeding disorders?

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Feeding disorders

Quite simply, this term describes any disorder that causes problems with intake of food. It could mean refusal to eat or to eat certain foods, or it could involve a physical inability to suck, chew or swallow food. Feeding problems are often associated with conditions such as reflux, esophageal achalasia or swallowing disorders. No two feeding disorders are the same, and each child’s case is often complex, involving a constellation of interrelated problems.

Causes of feeding disorders

It all depends on your child’s medical history. Feeding disorders can result from an underlying physiological condition, a psychological/behavioral problem, or a combination of both. Children with developmental disorders or other medical conditions are much more likely to experience feeding issues.

Some children are born with physical defects that make eating difficult. There could be an anomaly in the brain center that controls swallowing, poor tone of oral-motor muscles, or problems with texture because of sensory disturbances. Children with autism often develop very ritualistic eating patterns, such as rejecting any food that isn’t cut into a triangle or eating only one kind of food.

Sometimes parents attempt to introduce an eating milestone (such as spoon-feeding or table foods) too early, which can trigger a feeding aversion. Children who have experienced choking or other bad feeding experiences can develop a fear of eating.

Feeding disorders prevalence

Feeding and swallowing problems affect between 25 to 45 percent of typically developing children, though the prevalence is much higher (up to 80 percent) for children with other medical and behavioral disorders . Between 25 to 30 percent of children with cardiac issues have persistent feeding problems.

How do feeding disorders develop?

Sometimes feeding problems start at birth, while other times they develop later. They often emerge during the toddler years, between ages 2 to 4. Older children with feeding problems tend to have trouble with anxiety or may have a developmental disorder such as autism

Symptoms of feeding disorders

Symptoms can vary depending on the underlying cause of your child’s eating problem, but they can include:
  • Choking, gagging on food or certain textures
  • Aspirating on food (getting food in respiratory tract)
  • Food refusal
  • Intense behavioral outbursts with meals
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Pocketing of food in the child’s cheek

Risk of developing this condition

Children who have genetic syndromes such as DiGeorge syndrome, Down syndrome or other chromosomal disorders, autism and heart conditions are at higher risk of developing feeding disorders. In addition, premature babies or any other child with a complicated medical history who required prolonged intubation after birth may have trouble with feeding. But many otherwise healthy kids can also develop an aversion to eating, especially if there’s a lack of structure in the child’s feeding environment.

Concerns of feeding disorders

Children with feeding disorders tend to consume fewer calories and have a less varied and nutritious diet, which can lead to failure to thrive, poor weight gain or weight loss. These children can have poor energy levels, behavioral problems and constipation (particularly if their fluid intake is also low), and they may be more susceptible to infections or other illnesses because of the toll that malnutrition takes on the immune system.

From a societal perspective, 5 percent of hospital admissions are due to nutritional issues, and those cases account for 15 percent of health care costs.

Diagnosis and evaluation of feeding disorders

The specialists within our Feeding Program will start by analyzing your child’s medical history and feeding patterns. Our medical team will also observe while your child eats, looking for signs of choking, coughing or gagging during eating, and might use imaging tests to assess swallowing function. Those tests could include a barium swallow study, a videoflouroscopic swallow study, and/or an esophageal manometry test. If your child’s doctor suspects another underlying condition, such as eosinophilic esophagitis, the doctor might order an endoscopy or other additional tests.


Treatment for feeding disorders

Because feeding disorders vary in type and severity, treatment is based on your child’s needs. If your child’s disorder is more behavioral in nature, the doctor might recommend a more intensive psychological treatment, such as cognitive behavior therapy for older children. If an underlying medical condition is the cause, your doctor may need to treat that condition first before feeding can improve.

After treatment

Some children may need to see our feeding team regularly for many years, while others could be discharged after only a few visits. At Children’s Wisconsin, the average duration of treatment for feeding disorders is about one year. If problems reemerge, your child may need to restart treatment.


Contacting a physician

If you have any concerns about your child’s eating habits, talk to your pediatrician. He or she may refer you to a feeding specialist if further evaluation is necessary.


Long-term outlook for feeding disorders

Children with this condition generally have a good outcome. Outcomes are even better for cases that are more behavioral than physiological in nature. Children who have autism, seizures or severe developmental delays may continue to have difficulty eating and may need nutritional supplements to ensure adequate nutrition.


Living with feeding disorders

Parents are key to a child’s success in overcoming a feeding disorder, and our team will provide education and coaching on behavioral strategies that can be used at home. It may take some time, but in most cases, feeding disorders can be successfully managed.

Make an appointment

To make an appointment, call our Central Scheduling team or request an appointment online.

(877) 607-5280

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