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Swallowing Problems in Toddlers

By Linda Ray ; Updated June 13, 2017

The condition that children sometimes develop that causes swallowing problems is called dysphagia and can occur at various times in the swallowing process. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, toddlers can experience the problem when they begin chewing or when they first engage their throats. Swallowing difficulties also can occur when the food reaches the esophagus. Toddlers may present with a variety of symptoms when they have dysphagia.


According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, all possible symptoms of dysphagia are not present in all toddlers with swallowing difficulties. Symptoms to watch for include spitting up or vomiting regularly, gagging or coughing while eating or resistance to eating coarse or hard food. Children with dysphagia often take more than 30 minutes to finish a meal. They may have difficulty eating and breathing at the same time and drool from their noses or mouths while eating.

Side Effects

Children who have difficulty swallowing often are small and don't gain enough weight to meet general developmental guidelines. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, they tend to be dehydrated and in poor general health. A common side effect in toddlers with swallowing problems is that they get sick more often and repeatedly develop pneumonia or other respiratory conditions, which can lead to chronic lung diseases. Toddlers may refuse to eat in public because they are embarrassed about their eating problems.


A number of underlying conditions can create the circumstances that lead to dysphagia, including problems with tooth development, tonsils that are too large for the throat or a cleft palate. According to Children's Hospital Boston, throat tumors, digestive tract deformities, paralyzed vocal chords and an enlarged tongue also can cause the problems. Children may have temporary dysphagia when they have a foreign object lodged in their throat or following a tracheotomy. Other causes include enlarged organs pressing against the esophagus, nerve or muscle disease and premature birth.


Initially, a doctor will take a medical history to determine the cause of the swallowing problems. Parents and caregivers should keep records of the symptoms, noting when they occurred, what they looked like and what type of food caused the problems. According to Children's Hospital Boston, x-rays of the esophagus, throat and mouth also can help determine the extent of the damage and what deformities may be present.


Treatment varies with the severity of the problem and the age of the child. According to Children's Hospital Boston, speech therapy is a common treatment that can teach toddlers how to breathe properly and work their throats appropriately to expel air and swallow. Underlying medical conditions should be treated and surgery often is required to repair damaged esophagus tissue. Many children just need to eat a special diet while others with chronic disabilities such as brain damage or muscular dystrophy may always experience difficulty swallowing.

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