Two years ago, my then 6 year old daughter Sarah one day very nonchalantly announced that she could no longer swallow solid food. I’m pretty sure I responded with, “I’m sorry, what?!”
Let me back up. My daughter is on the small side. She’d been in the lower percentiles for height and weight since birth. She has food allergies. She’d always been a bit of a picky eater, but what kid isn’t. Plus, she inherited a stubborn nature from both her parents. So my husband and I didn’t really question when she started having trouble at dinner time. She would chew a single bite for minutes on end, then announce that she couldn’t swallow it and request to spit it out. We figured she just didn’t like what we were serving. It turns out we were wrong.
In Oct. 2016, she went on a field trip with her class. When I picked her up from school at the end of that day, the teacher mentioned that Sarah was chewing the same bite of apple for so long that she asked her to spit it out to avoid choking. A few weeks later, Sarah made her declaration about not being able to swallow solid food.
We started by visiting her pediatrician. The doctor ordered an x-ray to see if constipation was an issue, since Sarah was also complaining of regular stomachaches, as well as a blood test for Celiac, which runs in the family. The blood test was negative, but the x-ray revealed that our little girl was way backed up! After 2 weekend “clean outs,” we went back for a re-check. The constipation was better but she still wasn’t eating or swallowing.
The pediatrician, a real tiger mom, was certain that if we didn’t encourage the behavior, this phase would pass, and Sarah would eat. We were told, “kids won’t let themselves starve.” But, again, things didn’t get better.
It was so completely frustrating! A sentiment I expressed daily during this struggle. Was it a phase? Was she being stubborn? Was it a fear because she had she previously choked on something? Was it her tonsils, impeding her ability to swallow?
We got a referral for a Child Psychologist who told us it wasn’t a mental issue and to simply tell Sarah to eat. The psychologist also suggested a rewards system for eating. Neither of those approaches helped.
We got a referral for a Pediatric Gastroenterologist who performed an endoscopy. That’s a procedure in which the patient is put under anesthesia and a tube with a camera in it is run down their throat, through their stomach, into their intestines while taking pictures and biopsies. Remember, my daughter was 6! It was terrifying as a parent to sit by idly while this was done to my daughter. Luckily, everything was clear.
We got a referral for an Occupational Therapist, because at our local hospital children with eating issues over the age of 2 are assigned an OT, rather than a Speech Therapist/Speech Language Pathologist (SLP). This is important to note because one of my best friends is an SLP, and throughout this whole ordeal, she kept saying this is an eating mechanics issue and we should be seeing an SLP. Multiple times I even asked specifically for an SLP referral, but the pediatrician didn’t think it was necessary. So when we saw the OT, she told us within 5 minutes of meeting Sarah that she was not the right person to help.
Six months after Sarah’s big declaration, I was making an appointment for her 7 year old check-up, and I decided we needed to switch pediatricians because the original doctor was not giving us the support we needed. This was a very good decision!
Upon seeing the new doctor, we immediately got a referral for an SLP. And before even seeing the SLP, just by talking to her on the phone, she not only knew exactly what was going on, but she knew how to fix it!
It turns out, Sarah had oral motor issues. Basically, the muscles of her mouth weren’t working well enough to thoroughly chew her food and swallow it. We needed to send her oral muscles to the gym, and our AMAZING SLP had just the mouth exercises to do that. Within a few weeks, Sarah was eating. In less than 6 months, she graduated from speech therapy. And she hasn’t turned back since! Between first meeting with the SLP and her 8 year old check-up 10 month later, she gained 6 pounds and more than 2 inches in height. She was officially back on the growth chart!
So am I saying that every child who refuses to eat something has oral motor issues? No. What I am saying is that our sweet little children can face major issues, and we as parents need to be strong for them and persistent. If your doctor is not giving you the help you need, find another doctor. Keep pushing until you have an answer, until the problem is solved. It may save your child’s life, and it will certainly save your sanity.
And if you need a fantastic SLP, I’ve got somebody for you.