SPH Research: Infants Experiencing Feeding Problems More Likely to Develop Developmental Delays

Candid photo of Professor Erin Bell teaching a class in a lecture center. Bell is smiling at a student.
Research by Erin Bell found a link between feeding problems among infants and developmental delays later in childhood.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 16, 2021) – Infants who experience feeding problems are more likely to develop developmental delays later in childhood, according to a new study done in partnership with the University’s School of Public Health.

Professor Erin Bell worked with colleagues at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the New York University School of Medicine, which used data from Upstate KIDS, an ongoing cohort-based study led by Bell.

In the Journal of Pediatrics study, the mothers of 3,597 children were surveyed about their children’s feeding problems (such as gagging, crying during meals or pushing food away) and developmental delays when the children were 18, 24 and 30 months of age. Average scores of feeding problems were computed at each age, and categorical scores were used to indicate persistently high feeding problems. Meanwhile, the Battelle Developmental Inventory, a screening tool used to evaluate early childhood developmental milestones, was used to assess risk for developmental delay.

In adjusted analyses, the team discovered:

  • Feeding problems (per point increase) were increasingly associated with a score indicating risk for developmental delays.
  • Compared with children who never experienced feeding problems, children who experienced a high level of feeding problems were more than twice as likely to fail the screening tool for markers of developmental delay.
  • Most children did not experience high levels of feeding problems any time between 18 and 30 months, but 21 percent experienced high feeding problems at either one or two points in time.
  • Children who had high feeding problems at one or two points in time were more than twice as likely to fail the screen for markers of developmental delay, while those who had high feeding problems at all three points in time were four or more times more likely to fail the developmental markers at 30 months of age.

The results of the study, explained Bell, suggest that infants with frequent feeding problems, particularly those that persist into the third year of life, may be considered at-risk for developmental delays and could benefit from more targeted screening at earlier ages.

“Feeding problems may relate to developmental delays because they are indicative of underlying neurological differences,” explained the researchers. “They may further contribute to undernutrition and poor physical growth which impact development, or they relate to emotional temperament, which may contribute to social and behavioral delays.”

Upstate KIDS is a collaboration between UAlbany, the New York State Department of Health and NICHD that tracks the ongoing growth, motor and social development of more than 6,000 babies born to 5,000 mothers between 2008 and 2010 in 57 counties of upstate New York excluding New York City.

The full study can be read online.