Language disorder and history of feeding difficulties

This study found that just under half of children with developmental language disorder had a history of feeding difficulties.

The study considered 131 children seen over the course of a year at an early childhood speech–language clinic. But, importantly, they wanted to examine children with only language disorders. Thus, feeding disorders, speech disorders, other developmental disabilities (e.g. autism), prematurity, and medical differences were exclusion criteria, taking the sample of those with developmental language disorder down to 29 children, 14 of whom had a history of feeding difficulties.
Interesting, right? And this isn’t the first study to find results similar to this. In 2015, Malas et al. found that 53% of children with language disorder (and no motor impairments) had a history of feeding difficulties, as well.
So, what are SLPs to do with this information? Well... nothing, really. Unfortunately, there’s not much that clinicians can do with this information. Can we conclude that:

  • Presence of a feeding impairment predicts language disorder? Nope!
  • Feeding difficulties have the potential to cause language disorders? Nope!
  • Feeding and language disorders are caused by the same neurological deficit? Nope!
  • Treating feeding disorders may reduce the chance of later language disorders? Nope!
  • Treating feeding disorders will make language disorders better? Nope!
  • Mild oromotor deficits, which cause sub-clinical feeding difficulties, also cause difficulties in the developing language system? Nope!
  • Language disorder is more “motor-based” than we previously thought? Nope!

We can’t conclude any of these things, from either this study alone or this study combined with previous studies. All that has been shown here is a correlation, and correlation does not imply causation (if you’ve never hear this catchy phrase before, please visit here).
Now, some of us may like one of the above hypotheses. On the bullet-pointed above, you may see some points that match your clinical predictions. And it’s perfectly fine to make these predictions. However, at this time, we don't have adequate evidence to act on any of these predictions.
So, to reiterate—this study shows that children with language disorder are perhaps more likely to have a history of feeding impairment. That’s it! And, unfortunately, we currently have no idea why.

Malas, K., Trudeau, N., Giroux, M.C., Gauthier, L., Poulin, S., McFarland, D.H. (2017). Prior History of Feeding–Swallowing Difficulties in Children With Language Impairment. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 26, 138–145.