How one physical therapist uses the Infant and Child Feeding Questionnaire to identify a child’s areas of need and how she can help
Feeding challenges never occur in a vacuum. While I’m neither a speech therapist or a feeding therapist, the Infant and Child Feeding Questionnaire® (ICFQ©) from Feeding Matters remains one of my most important assessment tools in my initial encounters with new patients.
The ICFQ was authored in partnership with internationally renowned thought leaders representing multiple disciplines related to feeding. It’s an age-specific tool designed to identify potential feeding concerns and facilitate discussion with all members of the child’s healthcare team – including physical therapists (PT).
Based on the caregivers’ responses to six questions, the ICFQ has been shown to accurately identify and differentiate pediatric feeding disorder (PFD) from picky eating in children 0-4.
Using the feeding questionnaire as a physical therapist
Whenever I meet with a new PT pediatric patient at Texas Children’s Hospital, I spend the first session speaking to the family to determine how we can help the whole child.
For example, I recently was working with a family in the plagiocephaly – head-shaping – clinic at Texas Children’s. When I asked the parent about feeding, she responded that the baby just won’t stay still to eat. That response led me to ask more questions about feeding. I learned the baby has torticollis – tightness of neck muscle that causes the baby to turn to one side. Plus, the baby was dysregulated, which could mean a neurological issue. I asked about reflux, which could be a gastrointestinal issue. I knew how to help in some areas as a PT, and I knew to refer the family to an occupational therapist and a speech pathologist.
I can’t even describe how relieved this parent was. When it came to feeding, everyone else had simply told her to “keep trying.”
While physical therapy focuses on a child’s functional mobility, no movement’s isolated from the rest of a child’s health. Movement takes mental and physical regulation. An infant requires proper nutrition to perform at their highest level. A child without enough calories doesn’t have the necessary energy to make the most progress in physical therapy – or any other therapy, for that matter.
6 feeding questions that help me identify physical therapy patients’ needs
There are six basic questions on the ICFQ that clinicians identify when a child has a feeding issue. As a physical therapist, responses to the questions highlight issues around endurance, function level and the parent’s understanding of the child’s needs.
Following are the six questions and how the responses help me as a physical therapist.
- Does your child let you know when he/she is hungry?
This question gives me insight into how well parents understand their child’s communication cues. Recognizing an infant’s or nonverbal child’s cues allows parents to know when a child is hungry, uncomfortable or tired. This communication is essential to the parent’s ability to do PT exercises at home.
- Do you think your baby/child eats enough?
Often, the responses to this question are cultural. Among the patients I see at Texas Children’s, I find some cultures expect babies and children to eat more than others. This is an opportunity to educate parents about what is typical. For those babies and children not getting enough nutrition, it’s a chance to refer them to specialists who can help.
- Do you have to do anything special to help your baby/child eat?
This question helps me gauge a baby’s stamina level. The baby may be having trouble coordinating breathing with swallowing. This tells me that in physical therapy, I need to work on the baby’s ability to open her chest out wide and back in. The goal is to increase the baby’s endurance to work for 30 minutes of exercise. That causes fatigue at the time, but it actually builds stamina for later.
A baby who doesn’t have the endurance to finish feeding isn’t likely to have the energy to make as much progress in physical therapy. This makes getting more calories into the baby especially relevant for PT.
- Do you have to do anything special to help your baby/child eat?
This question helps me determine when a baby is dysregulated. It means I need to refer to a specialist who can help the family uncover why feeding isn’t typical.
In physical therapy, I’ll determine whether the child needs to work on muscle retraction. This is one of the issues I see often in infants, especially, and sometimes even older children who are having trouble feeding. Retraction takes them away from their midline without being able to find their center again easily. This makes it difficult to eat.
As a physical therapist, I’ll work with the baby on midline rotation. We work on coordinating the movement of opening and closing the arms and chest. The baby’s shoulders should expand back and then be able to come back to center. The baby should be able to find his flexion and make symmetrical motions in the upper and lower body.
Working on the body in this way can improve feeding, supporting the therapy that speech pathologists and occupational therapists are doing as well.
- Does your baby/child let you know when he is full?
When a baby is not recognizing fullness, this indicates there might be a chronic condition. Once full, a baby should cry, turn the head, push away the breast or bottle or spit out milk. But if a baby just keeps eating, this is a cue that the family needs a referral to a specialist.
As a physical therapist, it helps me identify a baby’s level of function.
- Based on the questions above, do you have concerns about your baby/child’s feeding?
Responses to this final question provide an opportunity for education. I’ll know how much information I should give parents on typical development for their child’s age and stage.
It’s also an opportunity to encourage parents who need a referral to go ahead and make that appointment.
As physical therapists, we’re not just looking at the legs and the feet. Treating our patients means treating the whole patient.
Knowing how a child is feeding doesn’t only alert me to a patient’s nutrition needs. It helps me identify other issues a child might be experiencing. Each question in the ICFQ paints a picture of the whole child’s needs.
Karen Crilly, PT, DPT, MAPT, CBIS, is an advanced clinical specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital who has dedicated her professional life to forming a strong background and expertise in the assessment and treatment of infants and children with chronic and complex developmental and/or neuro-motor impairment.