Behold: Tube weaning research and guidelines

Invigorated by our walk

Back in her tube days.

When is the last time a research paper made you cry? Around the time of Stella’s wean, and since then, I’ve come across information that moved me on many levels. I’d like to pass along these sought-after papers to as many parents (of children and babies with feeding aversions and NG tubes or g-tubes) as possible.

Supremely helpful insights and guidance are offered in the article, “Prevention and treatment of tube dependency in infancy and early childhood.”

Details and analysis can be found in the research paper itself: “Standardized tube weaning in children with long-term feeding-tube dependency: Retrospective analysis of 221 patients.”

Update: Also, from Spectrum Pediatrics in Virginia, check out this pediatric feeding tube weaning case study! This case study breaks down exactly how a well-managed and supported wean takes place.

It is with great excitement that I share with this research on tube weaning. When Stella’s NG tube was placed, I immediately started researching the topic online and only found horror stories. I went into full-on panic mode immediately, because there was no helpful information. No hope. Only desperation and despair.

This is now.

Lean but healthy, and happily eating, just months later.

These resources seemed to illuminate our world, bringing light to what was previously a dark informational void. They completely validated my feelings and my husband’s feelings–our whole struggle, our crazy experiences, our obsession–surrounding Stella’s feeding aversion and tube placement. It’s fair to say that in this case, reading was healing. It’s so helpful to understand how calories are reduced and what a respectful, child-centered wean looks like.

Why are these papers such a big deal? Because so little research on tube weaning exists, and therefore most parents and doctors are really just “winging it.” Yes, some children require tubes for long-term survival and the authors of these papers fully acknowledge this, of course. But many children who are capable of eating on their own, whose core feeding or other issues have been addressed but who remain *unwilling* to eat, are tube-fed for years, which needlessly and often dramatically lowers quality of life and impairs development. There’s a better way, and we need to spread the word.

Children and their parents are sent home from the hospital with feeding tubes in place, but without anything resembling a clear time-frame or plan for tube-feeding, and certainly no plan or support for weaning. Children and families deserve better than that.

I find these two excerpts from the tube weaning article and research to be particularly powerful:

“Tube dependency is a distressing and unintended result of tube feeding in infancy. The condition of tube dependency can be defined as active refusal to eat and drink, lack of will to learn or the inability and lack of motivation to show any kind of precursors of eating development and eating and drinking skills after a period of gastric feeding. It is characterized by overt disinterest, food avoidance and active refusal, gagging, vomiting, oversensitivity, fussiness and other oppositional and aversive behavior. It may influence the quality of life of the affected infants and their families to such a degree that all other troubles fade into insignificance besides the nightmare of a child who will not eat or drink. Nevertheless, tube dependency is not recognized as a problem by many pediatricians.”

“Parents of tube-fed children feel unhappy about their plight. If the duration of tube feeding exceeds the predicted period of time, they will wish to start tube weaning but lack the means to do so. A vicious circle of insecurity and desperation may result. Pressure and adult expectation build up, causing the child to resist any steps towards autonomy. Parents report feelings of anger, guilt and sadness at the sight of other children eating normally. In earlier studies (Lit 42,43) we reported that 86% of parents of tube-fed children suffered from overt depressive symptoms that disappeared after their children had begun to eat normally.”

The following excerpts should give you a quick, high-level view of the study (its purpose and outcome) as covered in the papers:

“Results: 203/221 patients (92%) were completely and sufficiently fed orally after treatment. Tube feeding was discontinued completely within a mean of 8 days, the mean time of treatment was 21.6 days.”

“The rationale for this retrospective study is to specify a successful tube weaning program in infancy. Many children remain tube dependent after successful healing of their underlying disease. Tube dependency often is accepted as ‘unintended side-effect’ of the treatment.”

“The main hypothesis of the study is: specialized treatment is highly effective and allows weaning severely impaired children even when numerous previous attempts had failed. The primary objective was complete weaning from long-term tube feeding based on sufficient, self-regulated oral intake.”

“The most important point of the model is the concept of full oral autonomy of the infant from birth and the implementation of this concept into the daily handling of parents and caregivers dealing with eating disorders, feeding disorders and tube-fed infants. Hunger is the main motivation for the attainment of self-regulated eating behavior.”

“[Tube] Placement must be preceded by clear criteria and a decision as to the indicated nutritional goal and time of use. The placement of a temporary tube must generate a plan covering maintenance issues including time, method and team for weaning. Aspects of tube feeding that go beyond purely medical and nutritional issues need to be considered in order to minimize the frequency and severity of unintended tube dependency in early childhood.”

In Spectrum Pediatrics’ detailed case study, you’ll see many references to honoring and respecting the child and being attentive to the child’s cues. The goal is to allow hunger while minimizing stress, and to create a situation wherein the child chooses to become an eater by mouth:

“The team members utilized intuition and developmental knowledge in order to read the “cues” of the patient to know what the child wanted to eat, as well as with whom and where. All of the eating scenarios were very relaxed and focused on fun and play. The tube weaning program team members were cognizant of ensuring an eating environment that was comfortable and low-anxiety. If the child was ever afraid to eat, the therapists and parents would return to enjoyable play activities. He was able to cope with his post-traumatic feeding disorder and its negative effects through play in the low-stress, enjoyable environment.”

“The patient continued to exhibit changes in his hunger and sleep cycle on the third and fourth day of the tube weaning program. He had difficulties with sleeping based on his new sensations with hunger and self-regulation. The team continued to make the eating situation as comfortable as possible for the patient by “following his lead”. This led to feedings of his most desired foods and in a variety of locations, including outdoors, indoors, on the floor, in the bathtub and in the car. The team also continued to provide water-dense foods, such as melon and cantaloupe, in order to ensure that he was keeping well hydrated. It was evident that he was growing in his familiarity with new sensations, foods, and oral motor skills.”

I hope these resources are as helpful to you as they were to me! Best weaning wishes.