Understanding the condition
Dysphagia is the medical term for swallowing difficulties. Children may experience swallowing difficulties for a number of reasons, these include:
A condition that affects the nervous system, such as a stroke, head injury, multiple sclerosis or dementia
Cancer – such as mouth cancer or oesophageal cancer
Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) – where stomach acid leaks back up into the oesophagus
A developmental or learning disability such as Cerebral Palsy
Some children with Dysphagia may experience difficulties swallowing certain foods and liquids more than others. Other children may not be able to swallow at all.
A sign that a child has Dysphagia may include:
Coughing or choking when eating or drinking
Regurgitating food, sometimes through the nose
Having a sensation that food is stuck in their throat or chest
Persistent drooling of saliva
A “gurgly” wet sounding voice when drinking or eating
Inability to chew food properly
Dysphagia can sometimes lead to further problems, such as Aspiration pneumonia: If as a result of coughing or choking food goes down the wrong way this can cause an infection.
In the long term, if a child is not eating enough and gaining the necessary nutrients that may experience weight loss and malnutrition.
Challenges faced by students
Children with Dysphagia will need additional professional support. If a child in your class has dysphagia, may need support to drink and eat, in some cases may use a feeding tube which you will need to access training to do. Children who require additional support with drinking and eating may feel anxious about eating as they are unable to do so independently, are likely to be slower than other children and frightened as they may fear choking
Children may be resistant to drinking and eating as a result of their fear of choking so may present behavioural problems at mealtimes.
If food does go down the wrong way with a child who experiences Dysphagia, they may develop Aspiration Pneumonia, this is serious condition and needs emergency care. Signs that a child may have Aspiration pneumonia include:
Having a wet, gurgly voice while eating or drinking
Coughing while eating or drinking
Having difficulties in breathing – breathing may be rapid and shallow
It is essential that you meet with the child’s parents/ carers ahead of them starting school to understand what type of Dysphagia they experience, what the cause of their dysphagia is, how you can support their drinking and eating in school, and what professionals are involved in supporting the child’s health and dietary needs.