Trouble swallowing

Cancer and its treatment can sometimes cause trouble with swallowing. If your child has this problem, give her soft, liquid, easy-to-swallow foods. Sometimes children may be better able to swallow thicker fluids than thin liquids. Serving high-calorie, high-protein drinks can help boost your child’s nutrient intake during times when she is unable to eat enough regular foods.

Talk to your health care team if you are worried that your child is not eating enough. Your doctor may refer her to a speech therapist. This expert health professional can teach your child how to swallow easier and how to decrease coughing and choking while eating and drinking. The speech therapist can help you figure out if and when nutrition support (such as tube feeding) is needed. Here are some other things that may help:

  • Try to get your child to drink the recommended amount of fluid each day and thicken the fluid to the consistency that is easiest for them to swallow. Talk to your health care team about how much fluid your child should try to take in each day.
  • Call your doctor right away if your child coughs or chokes while eating, especially if she has a fever.
  • Offer small, frequent meals.
  • Chop or puree your child’s food in a blender or food processor.
  • Use canned liquid nutritional supplements if your child is unable to eat enough food to meet her needs.

Thickening products

Talk to your health care team about using thickening products to help your child swallow. Here are some of the things you can use to make liquids thicker and easier to swallow.

  • Gelatin: Use this mixture to soak cakes, cookies, crackers, sandwiches, pureed fruits, and other cold food: mix 1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin in 2 cups hot liquid until dissolved; pour over food. Allow food to sit until saturated.
  • Tapioca, flour, and cornstarch: Use to thicken liquids. Note that these must be cooked before using.
  • Commercial thickeners: Follow label instructions, and use to adjust a liquid’s thickness.
  • Pureed vegetables and instant potatoes: Use in soups. Note that these change the food’s flavor.
  • Baby rice cereal or instant pudding: Use to make a very thick product. These also change the food’s flavor.

If thick liquids are needed, you can also offer buttermilk, eggnog, milk shakes, yogurt shakes, and ice cream.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: June 30, 2014

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