"I'm a speech pathologist"
"A speech therapist"
"Oh, my sister/brother/mom/cousin had a lisp/stutter/couldn't say their 'r' sound! Do you work in a school?"
"No, I work at a children's hospital"
"Wow. Why do sick kids need speech therapy?"
"Well I work with kids who were preemies, or who have had head injuries, and they need help with communication. Actually, mostly I work with the babies"
"But babies don't talk."
This is how most cocktail party conversations go. If anyone out there is a pediatric SLP working with children under the age of 3, you've probably had the same conversation. The simple fact is, no one really knows what an SLP does until they need one. The same is true for most other rehabilitative services as well. So, what does an SLP do exactly? And why do SLPs work on feeding and swallowing disorders? Do other therapists work on feeding and swallowing? How do you find the right person to work with your child?
Speech and Swallowing? What's the Connection?
A speech-language pathologist, or SLP, works with patients from birth through old age on communication and swallowing disorders. Communication includes the understanding and production of the sounds that make up words (speech) and the understanding and production of sentences and stories (language). Other communication disorders that an SLP would address include stuttering, social language impairments (such as with autism spectrum disorders), and voice disorders. Because communication is controlled by the brain, the mouth and throat, and the respiratory system, it makes logical sense that the SLP would also address feeding and swallowing - which uses the same structures and systems.
Does Every SLP Treat Feeding and Swallowing Disorders?
This is a great question, and one that every parent or caregiver should ask. The answer is NO. While every SLP receives some amount of training in swallowing disorders during their graduate school training, not every SLP has skills or experience in this area. The key is to find out how much and what kind of experience your child's SLP has in the areas of feeding and swallowing. How many years of experience is a place to start, but it's not the whole picture. Here are a few questions to ask your SLP to find out about their experience level:
- What kinds of feeding and swallowing disorders have you treated before?
- How many patients with feeding and swallowing disorders are on your caseload right now?
- Do you have any certifications or continuing education in specific treatment approaches? (some of these might be S.O.S., NDT, Mealtime Partners, or VitalStim)
As always, if your SLP tells you about anything you don't understand ASK QUESTIONS. The more you understand, the better advocate you can be for your child.
Do People Other Than SLPs Treat Feeding and Swallowing Disorders?
Yes, there are other types of therapists who treat many aspects of feeding and swallowing disorders. However, an SLP is the only discipline to specifically address feeding and swallowing disorders in their required graduate education and in their standards of clinical practice. Occupational therapists, lactation consultants, and even some nurses and dietitians treat feeding and swallowing disorders from different perspectives. While these specialties bring unique information to a feeding and swallowing treatment plan, it is again best to ask the question about experience.
A good friend and colleague of mine is an occupational therapist who is also pursuing her lactation consultant certification. In addition, she has a degree in early childhood development and 5+years of experience in a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) setting. Do I think that she is qualified to treat feeding and swallowing disorders? Absolutely. In a perfect world, the many specialists who address feeding and swallowing would work in collaboration and share their specialized knowledge.
The Team Approach - Building a Feeding Family
Sometimes it can feel that finding the one perfect person to provide therapy for your child is a daunting task. How could one person possibly have all the answers!? The answer is that they don't. The best approach is to find an SLP with a good amount of experience who is willing to work as a part of a team of specialists. This team could include any or all of the following:
- Dietitian or Nutritionist
- Occupational Therapist
- Developmental or Early Childhood Specialist
- Lactation Consultant
- Social Worker or Family Counselor