Abstract

Importance: When a neonate’s sucking, swallowing, and breathing are disorganized, oropharyngeal aspiration often occurs and results in illness, developmental problems, and even death. Occupational therapists who work in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) need to identify neonates who are at risk for aspirating so they can provide appropriate treatment.

Objective: To ascertain whether client factors and performance skills of infants ages 0–6 mo during occupational therapy feeding evaluations are related to results of videofluoroscopic swallowing studies (VFSSs).

Design: Retrospective chart reviews.

Setting: 187-bed NICU in a nonprofit teaching hospital.

Participants: A purposive sample of 334 infants ages 0–6 mo, ≥33 wk gestational age at birth, admitted to a Level II, III, or IV NICU as defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Outcomes and Measures: Neonates were administered a feeding evaluation by an occupational therapist and a VFSS by a speech-language pathologist, which yielded information about client factors and performance skills.

Results: Signs and symptoms of aspiration on the evaluations were significantly associated with VFSS results. Of 310 patients, 79 had silent aspiration. Of 55 infants who demonstrated no aspiration symptoms during the feeding evaluation, 45% demonstrated aspiration symptoms on the VFSS, and 55% aspirated on the VFSS but demonstrated no symptoms of aspiration.

Conclusions and Relevance: Aspiration among infants occurs inconsistently and depends on client factors, contexts, and environments. Occupational therapists are encouraged to assess an infant’s feeding over several sessions to obtain a more accurate picture of the infant’s feeding status.

What This Article Adds: This study provides information that helps occupational therapists identify infants at risk for aspiration and make optimal recommendations regarding safe feeding practices and appropriate referrals for a VFSS. Making appropriate referrals for VFSS is also important in preventing unnecessary exposure to radiation for preterm infants.

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