Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders


Date of this Version



Curr Opin Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2009 June ; 17(3): 187–193.


Copyright 2009 Steven M. Barlow


Purpose of review—Drinking and eating are essential skills for survival and benefit from the coordination of several pattern generating networks and their musculoskeletal effectors to achieve safe swallows. Oral-pharyngo-esophageal motility develops during infancy and early childhood, and is influenced by various factors, including neuromuscular maturation, dietary and postural habits, arousal state, ongoing illnesses, congenital anomalies, and the effects of medical or surgical interventions. Gastroesophageal reflux is frequent in neonates and infants, and its role in neonatal morbidity including dysphagia, chronic lung disease, or apparent life-threatening events is not well understood. This review highlights recent studies aimed at understanding the development of oral feeding skills, and cross-system interactions among the brainstem, spinal, and cerebral networks involved in feeding.

Recent Findings—Functional linkages between suck-swallow and swallow-respiration manifest transitional forms during late gestation through the first year of life which can be delayed or modified by sensory experience and/or disease processes. Relevant central pattern generator (CPG) networks and their neuromuscular targets attain functional status at different rates, which ultimately influences cross-system CPG interactions. Entrainment of trigeminal primary afferents accelerates pattern genesis for the suck CPG and transition-to-oral feed in the RDS preterm infant.

Summary—The genesis of within-system CPG control for rate and amplitude scaling matures differentially for suck, mastication, swallow, and respiration. Cross-system interactions among these CPGs represent targets of opportunity for new interventions which optimize experience-dependent mechanisms to promote safe swallows among newborn and pediatric patients.