What are some indicators that would suggest an infant is ready for oral feeding?
Prior to feeding portion of a feeding assessment with an infant, it is important to consider the infant’s responsiveness, level of alertness and overall behavioral characteristics. Readiness for oral feeding is not based entirely on gestational age. First, the infant needs to demonstrate neurobehavioral organization which is the infant’s ability to organize themselves within their own central nervous system maturation and environment. The caregiver can actually help structure the environment to support the infants’ development. For example, when a caregiver learns to read the infant’s cues and to understand the techniques that support neurobehavioral organization, those interactions are going to support positive interactions and development. There are several standardized assessments that assess readiness and early feeding skills specific to infants – the Systematic Assessment of the Infant at the Breast, the Preterm Infant Breast-Feeding Scale, The Early Feeding Skills Assessment for Preterm Infants and the NOMAS are a few examples.
In general, the SLP should be aware of the following readiness indicators:
- Respiratory rate (breaths per minute) should be 60 or below. You will want to check with your specific medical team to confirm the guidelines in your setting and with each individual case.
- Oxygen saturation should be above 92%
- Minimal fluctuation of heart rate
- Absence of stress signals which include alterations in breathing, color changes, tremors or startles, placidity (i.e., meaning the baby is very floppy), hypertonicity or stiffness, hyperflexion, gaze aversion or frantic sort of diffuse activity
- Infant is able to maintain homeostasis, meaning a relatively stable state of equilibrium
The Infant Behavioral States, according to Heidi Als (1995), describe the behavioral organization of the newborn infant. The states are:
- State 1 - Deep Sleep, seldom seen in a preterm
- State 2 - Light Sleep
- State 3* - Drowsy
- State 4* - Quiet awake and/or alert
- State 5* - Actively awake and aroused
- State 6 - Highly aroused, agitated, upset &/or crying
ÜOral feeding optimal at these states
It is best to do oral feeding in states 3,4 and 5. Otherwise, the baby is will not be alert enough or the baby is so frantic that the he will not be able to organize himself enough to concentrate on the complex work that feeding is for the infant. Ideally, we want to have an oral feeding that occurs in the context of a drowsy or a quiet alert state.
Please refer to the SpeechPathology.com course, Overview of Clinical Assessment and Instrumental Evaluation of Pediatric Dysphagia, presented in parternship with Cincinnati Children's for more in-depth information about clinical feeding evaluation in the pediatric population and indications for instrumental swallowing assessment.