Safe oral feeding of infants necessitates the coordination of suck-swallow-breathe. Healthy full-term infants demonstrate such skills at birth. But, preterm infants are known to have difficulty in the transition from tube to oral feeding. Aim: To examine the relationship between suck and swallow and between swallow and breathe. It is hypothesized that greater milk transfer results from an increase in bolus size and/or swallowing frequency, and an improved swallow-breathe interaction. Methods: Twelve healthy preterm (<30 wk of gestation) and 8 full-term infants were recruited. Sucking (suction and expression), swallowing, and respiration were recorded simultaneously when the preterm infants began oral feeding (i.e. taking 1–2 oral feedings/d) and at 6–8 oral feedings/d. The full-term infants were similarly monitored during their first and 2nd to 4th weeks. Rate of milk transfer (ml/min) was used as an index of oral feeding performance. Sucking and swallowing frequencies (#/min), average bolus size (ml), and suction amplitude (mmHg) were measured. Results: The rate of milk transfer in the preterm infants increased over time and was correlated with average bolus size and swallowing frequency. Average bolus size was not correlated with swallowing frequency. Bolus size was correlated with suction amplitude, whereas the frequency of swallowing was correlated with sucking frequency. Preterm infants swallowed preferentially at different phases of respiration than those of their full-term counterparts.
Conclusion: As feeding performance improved, sucking and swallowing frequency, bolus size, and suction amplitude increased. It is speculated that feeding difficulties in preterm infants are more likely to result from inappropriate swallow-respiration interfacing than suck-swallow interaction.