A pediatric gastroenterologist debunks 4 myths about G-tubes and normalizes a feeding tube for those kids who need it.
Dana Williams, MD, Medical Director, Feeding Disorders Multidisciplinary program; Medical Director, Aerodigestive Digestive Program at Phoenix Children’s Hospital
When I see patients who are likely candidates for a G-tube, I can already imagine their lives at home. Days revolve around feedings. Every hour, on the hour, the parents attempt to get an ounce of formula or breastmilk into their little one’s belly. The parents are exhausted, and so are their children. Everyone feels like a failure.
In spite of the struggle, no one wants to bring up a G-tube. So, I do.
As director of a team of physicians, therapists and dietitians at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, I see hundreds of children each year with pediatric feeding disorder (PFD). For many of them whose medical complexities make oral eating a struggle, a gastrostomy (G) tube is a key medical intervention. G-tubes help these children develop and thrive, while preventing malnutrition and dehydration.
A G-tube is surgically inserted through the abdominal wall and into the stomach. It’s held in place by an internal device called a balloon. The tube can be used to deliver liquids, purees and medication.
This sounds scarier than it is.
Like any surgical medical intervention, deciding to directly feed a child through a gastrointestinal tube inserted into their stomach is a big decision. For those children who are a good candidate for a G-tube, the benefits of a feeding tube and the risks of not getting one far outweigh any risks.
There are many benefits of getting a G-tube. Some of those include:
- Improved nutrition and hydration: A G-tube provides direct access to the stomach for nutrition, fluids and medication, ensuring children get the nutrition they need.
- Reduced risk of aspiration: A G-tube can reduce the risk of food and liquid entering the lungs, a common problem for children with pediatric feeding disorders.
- Increased independence: Children with G-tubes can engage in activities they enjoy without the stress of constantly worrying about eating or drinking.
- Better sleep: A G-tube can provide continuous nutrition and hydration overnight, leading to better sleep and improved overall health.
- Eased caregiver burden: Parents get relief from constantly trying to provide adequate nutrition and hydration.
- Improved weight gain and development: Children with a G-tube often see improved weight gain, leading to better overall health.
- Comfort: Removing the alternative temporary nasal tube can make it more comfortable for a child to eat. Depending on each child’s medical journey, they may be more likely to eat when they don’t have hardware in their noses.
Still, many parents who consider a G-tube for their children can feel like a failure. The truth is the opposite. Feeding isn’t something parents or doctors or anybody can control. If a child doesn’t want to eat, or they can’t eat, then there is nothing anyone can do to make them. Of course, this can change over time with multiple levels of support. But the parents of these children haven’t failed.
Debunking 4 major myths about G-tubes
Most of the time that parents express hesitation about the G-tube, it’s because of a fear of one or more of four common myths. Talking about the reality of what a G-tube will mean for a child and the family helps parents make an informed decision.
Myth #1: A G-tube is permanent
A G-tube is a temporary solution to supplement or replace oral eating and drinking. I have countless patients living healthy lives after the removal of their G-tubes who will attest to that fact.
How long each patient needs a G-tube and whether they’re receiving all or some nutrition through the tube depends on each child’s needs. When a family is deciding about G-tube surgery, we discuss the anticipated use. In many cases, a G-tube can supplement – rather than replace – oral eating.
We also discuss the process for removing a G-tube for those kids who can eat fully orally one day.
Myth #2: Infection is common with a G-tube
Infections do occur for some people with a G-tube, but they’re not common. Some children are more sensitive, and there is no way to predict that. For most people, the channel for the G-tube heals nicely. Similarly to an ear piercing, it becomes epithelialized so that the tube can comfortably pass through the area. We monitor the insertion hole and mitigate the risk of infection by teaching parents and older children how to clean the area.
Myth #3: Kids can’t eat regular food with a G-tube
The majority of kids with G-tubes in our practice also eat orally. This varies for each child, depending on their medical issues. Most children I see even take pleasure in oral food. The G-tube is an important tool that gives children time to develop the ability to eat on their own terms.
Myth #4: A G-tube means kids won’t be motivated to eat orally
While there is some truth to this myth, it’s not entirely accurate. For many kids with PFD, it doesn’t take much for them to feel full. This is why we individualize treatment so that each child receives the amount they need. Children can still learn hunger cues and get exposed to meal time routines.
What is a sign of success for a child with a feeding tube?
Just as the treatment plan for every child with a feeding tube is different, success also varies. To me, the main signifier of success is when the patient and family are in close conversation with their doctor. Every journey is different, but having a team of the right medical provider matters. It’s not up to parents to walk this journey alone.
Beyond that, any step forward for a child is success. Some examples are as follows:
- A child who aspirates due to a medical condition safely learns to taste some food and enjoy family meals.
- A child slowly learns to eat orally through feeding therapy post heart surgery.
- A child who outgrows some allergies and tries more foods.
- A young adult who goes off to college even though he still only eats seven foods.
Parents of children with pediatric feeding disorder no doubt feel responsible for ensuring their children get the nutrition they need to grow and develop. For those children who are good candidates for a feeding tube, a G-tube is an important tool to help them along their feeding journey.
Hadyn Van der Molen has had a G-tube since he was nine months old. His mom, Heidi, program manager for Feeding Matters, recalls feeding Hadyn around the clock with a 2-oz. bottle. The only time he’d ingest it was when he was sleeping.