Words by Paige Townley
When Kayleigh Anderson wasn’t gaining weight and coughed a lot when feeding as a newborn, parents Katlin Cochran and Jacob Anderson knew something wasn’t quite right. At first, they thought it might just be an issue with the nipple on the bottle. But to be safe, they took her to the pediatrician. “They thought she might have pneumonia, so they sent us on to Children’s of Alabama to be safe,” explained Katlin.
At Children’s, they found out that Kayleigh was sick, but thankfully only with a viral infection. The bigger problem was that the issues she was experiencing while feeding were actually because of aspiration. Aspiration occurs when a child has trouble swallowing normally, allowing the food or beverage to enter the airway rather than moving down the esophagus into the stomach. Children with aspiration do not tolerate viral illness well, often getting sicker than peers sometimes requiring hospitalization. “I thankfully mentioned that it seemed like things were going down the wrong way whenever she ate, leading to a swallow test that revealed she was aspirating,” Katlin said. “I never would have thought she would have been aspirating on liquids that thin.”
Typical symptoms of aspiration are much like Kayleigh’s: coughing or choking when eating or drinking, noisy breathing or wet breathing, ongoing respiratory issues and chest congestion, and poor weight gain. When not diagnosed and corrected, it can lead to numerous health issues, including recurrent respiratory illness,pneumonia, malnutrition, weight loss, and dehydration. “It can happen to children of any age, and it can happen for many different reasons,” noted Morgan Leonard, supervisor of inpatient speech-language pathology at Children’s of Alabama. “The important thing is for parents to pay attention for these signs and if concerned, talk to the pediatrician to see about going to a speech therapist.
Speech therapy is often thought of solely for teaching children to speak more clearly, but it also plays a big role in the evaluation and treatment of feeding and swallowing problems like aspiration. When Kayleigh was admitted into the hospital, her team of doctors decided to consult a speech therapist to complete a feeding evaluation. “If it wasn’t for the speech therapist we worked with, I don’t know where Kayleigh would be,” Katlin said. “They worked with us to get the thickness of the liquid correct for Kayleigh to eat correctly, and they always answer every question I have. Without them, I don’t think I would have any peace of mind.”
Kayleigh specifically worked with Olivia Rush, one of Children’s speech and language pathologists, who worked hand in hand with Katlin to rectify Kayleigh’s feeding issues. “Katlin was great in noticing things that weren’t quite right and advocating for Kayleigh,” Olivia says. “She obviously sees Kayleigh at every single feeding, while I only got to watch one feeding a day while she was in the hospital, so her information helped us find the right feeding plan for Kayleigh.”
In Kayleigh’s specific case, doctors believe her swallowing difficulty will improve as she grows and develops. In the meantime, she has routine swallow studies to reduce the risk of aspiration affecting her health. “We’re just watching and waiting and, in the meantime, trying to keep the thickness of the liquid right,” Katlin said. “I’m so thankful for everyone at Children’s that has worked with Kayleigh. I wouldn’t want to take my child anywhere else. At Children’s, I know she’s in the best hands possible.”