Dysphagia (Child)

Child's head and torso showing upper and lower respiratory tracts and upper digestive system.

Dysphagia is trouble swallowing. Your child may choke when eating or drinking. This problem can be short term, due to a throat infection or other problem in the throat. Other problems can cause it to go on for a longer time. In this case, dysphagia can make it hard for your child to get enough nutrients to grow. Your child also may breathe food into his or her lungs (aspirate). This can cause serious lung infections such as pneumonia.

A child with dysphagia may have symptoms that include:

  • Arching or stiffening of the body during feedings 

  • A wet or raspy voice during or after eating

  • Choking or coughing during or right after eating or drinking

  • Drooling

  • Food or liquids coming out of the nose during or after feeding

  • Gagging

  • Irritability or lack of alertness during feedings

  • Slow eating

  • Swallowing a single mouthful of food several times

  • Trouble coordinating sucking and swallowing

  • Vomiting after eating or drinking 

Dysphagia often affects children who are just learning to eat solid foods. In this case, it should go away as a child gets used to eating. Tests may be done to see if there is another cause, such as problems with the mouth, tongue, or throat. The tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach (esophagus) may be examined for problems. Certain problems with the muscles or nerves can also cause swallowing issues. Your child’s healthcare provider can discuss the cause of the dysphagia with you.

Dysphagia can be treated in different ways depending on the cause. Certain medicines may help. In some cases, a speech therapist can help your child learn to control muscles in the mouth, tongue, and throat. If there is a structural problem with the mouth, throat, or esophagus, your child’s healthcare provider can outline treatment options.

Home care

To help reduce or ease your child’s symptoms:

  • Give your child any medicines exactly as directed. Ask the healthcare provider for advice if your child has a hard time swallowing the medicine.

  • Try feeding thick liquids instead of thin liquids. Add a small amount of rice cereal to infant formula or pumped breast milk to thicken it. Blend the mixture before putting in a baby bottle. (Don't cut holes in nipples, since this can increase the risk of choking and aspiration, and interfere with oral development. Future feeding and speech skills may be affected.)

  • Don't give baby foods from a spoon until your child is 4 months old.

  • Vary the taste, texture, and temperature of soft foods for children older than 4 months.

  • Make sure your child stays upright for at least an hour after eating.

  • Provide safe toys and other objects for your baby to chew on.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your child’s healthcare provider as advised. He or she can give you information about tests your child may need.

When to get medical advice

Call your child's healthcare provider for any of the following:

  • Your child can’t keep down food or liquid.

  • Your child’s symptoms get worse quickly.

  • Your child continues to lose weight.

  • Any other symptoms indicated by your child’s healthcare provider.

Call 911

Get your child emergency medical care for any of the following:

  • Your child has trouble breathing.

  • Your child faints (loses consciousness).

  • Your child’s skin or lips turn blue.

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