Importance: Thickening of fluids is a common strategy for feeding patients with oropharyngeal dysphagia but has known risks and should be stopped once it is safe to do so. Weaning children from thickened fluids safely can be challenging, and novel methods are required.
Objective: To describe the use of a systematic weaning process (SWP) for children who received thickened liquids owing to oropharyngeal dysphagia and identified risk of aspiration.
Design, setting, and participants: Retrospective case series (2010 to 2015) at a tertiary care center of 50 children with documented aspiration by clinical swallowing assessment, airway evaluation, and videofluoroscopic swallow study with at least 4 months of follow-up. All patients were initially receiving thickened fluids. A 10% reduction in thickness was made every 2 weeks based on clinical symptoms. Caregivers progressed to the next incremental level if there were no signs or symptoms of aspiration.
Main outcomes and measures: Number of patients weaned to a thin-fluid diet.
Results: Of 50 children (32 [64%] male; median [interquartile range] age, 0.7 [1.0] y at presentation and 1.8 [1.3] y at start of wean) using the SWP, 44 (88%) were able to reduce the amount of thickener used. A successful wean from thickened fluids to thin fluids was completed in 39 (78%). The mean (SD) duration of a successful wean was 0.9 (0.6) years. Five patients tolerated a reduction in thickener but not a full wean to thin fluids. For 6 patients, weaning failed and they continued to receive thickened fluids. Of those whose weaning failed, 2 patients developed pneumonia. Of the 39 successfully weaned patients, 14 (36%) experienced a temporary stall but eventually tolerated thin fluids. Only 2 (5%) developed pneumonia while all other successfully weaned patients (n = 37 [95%]) did not experience any substantial respiratory issues. Overall, 46 (92%) of children required 2 or fewer videofluoroscopic swallow study evaluations.
Conclusions and relevance: Patients with oropharyngeal dysphagia and aspiration should be gradually weaned off of thickened fluids. The SWP uses small incremental steps to gradually reduce the amount of thickener. Using this method, most children tolerated a reduction in thickeners and a thin-fluid diet. The SWP presents a safe and effective way of gradually returning children to a more normal diet.