Which kids who aspirate need a gastrostomy tube?

While some may think all children who aspirate should have a gastrostomy tube, a recent study (ME McSweeney et al. J Pediatr 2016; 170: 79-84) indicates a more selective approach is appropriate.

This retrospective review of 114 patients (2006-2013) compared patients fed by gastrostomy tube (g-tube) and those who were fed orally.  In their introduction, the authors note, “there has been a practice shift at many institutions away from g-tube placement and more toward continuing to feed children with aspiration orally.”  All patients in the study had aspiration and/or penetration with thin liquids and/or nectar thick liquids on a videofluoroscopic swallow study (VFSS).

There were 61 who aspirated only thin liquids and 53 who aspirated thin and nectar thick liquids.  All patients were divided into two groups: a g-tube group which did not have a preoperative trial of thickened feeds and an orally-fed group.  Patients who had a fundoplication or post-pyloric feeds were excluded from this study.

Key findings:

  • There were no significant differences in admissions among those who aspirated thins compared with those that aspirated thin & nectar thick liquids.
  • Patients fed by gastrostomy were hospitalized more frequently (median 2 times compared to once with orally-fed) and for longer duration (median 24 days compared with median 2 days for orally-fed)
  • No differences in total pulmonary admissions were noted between gastrostomy-fed and orally-fed group

The authors advocate a trial of oral feeding in all children cleared to take nectar or honey thick liquids prior to g-tube placement.


While the authors note that g-tube placement did not result in fewer pulmonary admissions, in their discussion, they also reviewed studies which showed that fundoplication (with g-tube) was not associated with a reduced risk of respiratory complications and in fact, had higher rehospitalizations.

This current study, and previous studies, are limited by their design.  Patients were not randomized and g-tube-fed patients may have had more comorbidities, biasing the results.  The authors note that there were 11 children who failed oral thickening trials and needed g-tube placement.  At the same time, there are substantial numbers of children whose swallow function improve.  Also, the authors note that thickening agents have not been shown to lead to dehydration risk.

My take: the widespread availability of swallow studies has likely led to some children undergoing g-tube placement who may have been fine with ongoing orally-thickened feeds.  Avoiding g-tube placement for children who can tolerate and thrive on thickened feeds is worthwhile.

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