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People with cerebral palsy may be at risk for malnutrition or being undernourished. Cerebral palsy sometimes affects the muscles and movements involved in chewing, swallowing, and eating and can cause gastrointestinal issues. Managing nutritional health in a child with cerebral palsy includes therapies and simple eating strategies.
Dysphagia – Oral Motor Dysfunction
One of the main reasons that a child with cerebral palsy is at risk of developing a nutritional problem is dysphagia or difficulty swallowing. This makes eating difficult, but it also makes breathing difficult and may increase the risk of choking. Dysphagia is most common in children with moderate to severe cerebral palsy.
The muscles that are coordinated to move food from the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach are complexly linked. In a child with cerebral palsy, these muscles are commonly affected, and swallowing, talking, and breathing may be impaired.
Dysphagia may be oropharyngeal, occurring in the muscles of the oral cavity and back of the throat, or esophageal, which affects the lower part of the esophagus and entry into the stomach.
Strategies to improve eating and swallowing with dysphagia include changing the consistency of food to make it softer, thinner, or thicker as needed, chewing more thoroughly, and eating smaller portions of food multiple times a day.
Other Causes of Malnutrition
Dysphagia is not the only complication of cerebral palsy that can cause problems with eating and nutrition. Other muscle and motor difficulties may make eating difficult, such as difficulty holding utensils.
In these cases, meal times may be long and tiring, and a child may give up before consuming adequate calories and nutrients. Making foods easier to eat, using adaptive equipment, and having smaller meals more frequently can help.
Gastrointestinal health can also play a role in nutritional deficits. Gastroesophageal reflux is not uncommon with cerebral palsy and causes heartburn, ulcers, and pain.
These symptoms make eating difficult, and many children may refuse to eat because of the discomfort it causes. It is important to monitor gastrointestinal health in these children and treat the acid reflux with medications and provide a diet that reduces reflux where indicated.
Consequences of Poor Nutrition
If a child is not eating enough or is not getting enough macro and micronutrients because of food choices, the results can be long-lasting. Poor nutritional status may cause:
- Specific vitamin deficiencies
- Tooth decay
- Decreased bone density
- Poor or delayed growth
- Failure to thrive in infants
- Urinary tract infections
- Bowel obstruction
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Some of the common specific deficiencies that children with cerebral palsy experience are overall calories, protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, folic acid, zinc, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper.
Each of these comes with its consequences and symptoms. Supplementing with the missing nutrient may be necessary.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that children with a “physical disability” are at risk of malnutrition if they are “prone to pressure sores caused by immobility or poor nursing which can become seriously infected.”
A child with cerebral palsy may even suffer from being overweight or obese. This may result from poor food choices, eating foods that taste good and are easy to eat instead of considering nutrition, and the fact that many kids with cerebral palsy are unable to be very active.
Many of the consequences of poor nutrition can be reversed, but the problems may persist for years when severe.
Working with a Dietitian
Addressing and treating the underlying cause of malnutrition is an essential first step, whether that means therapy to make swallowing easier or better utensils to make self-feeding easier. However, it is also important that a child with nutritional deficits get professional guidance in food choices and maintain a good diet balance.
A registered dietitian can help parents and children develop a meal plan to provide all the nutrients and calories a child needs. A dietitian will also create a meal plan that considers a child’s unique needs and difficulties, including the use of nutritional shakes and supplements.
Supplementing with vitamin D, calcium, and other oral supplements may be required. Since children with cerebral palsy are generally less active, they are more likely to develop weak bones.
Nutrition is an important consideration when raising any child. All children grow and develop and need the right nutrition and adequate calories to develop normally. This is equally important, though often much more challenging, when considering the care of a child with cerebral palsy.
A child with this condition may struggle to swallow anything and may end up with malnutrition and undernourishment as a result.
The consequences over the long term can be devastating. Still, by treating the underlying causes and by developing a well-rounded diet, malnutrition can be avoided or corrected to help these children reach their best health outcomes.
- Kim JS , et al. (n.d.). Characteristics of dysphagia in children with cerebral palsy, related to gross motor function. - PubMed - NCBI. National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23739271
- Erlichman, M. (1989). The Role of Speech Language Pathologists in the Management of Dysphagia. Health Technol. Assess. Rep. (1), 1-10.
Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2697321/
- Malnutrition and disability: unexplored opportunities for collaboration. (n.d.). PubMed Central (PMC) National Institutes of Health.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4232244/
- Fragale, N., Navarre, N., & Rogers, J. (2018). General Nutrition for Children with Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy, 1-10.
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