Emergence of oropharyngeal, laryngeal and swallowing activity in the developing fetal upper aerodigestive tract: An ultrasound evaluation

Jeri L. Miller, Barbara C. Sonies, Christian Macedonia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


The developing fetal upper aerodigestive system provides the structural support for respiratory and ingestive functions necessary to sustain life at birth. This study investigated prenatal development of upper aerodigestive anatomy and the association of emerging functions as predictors of postnatal feeding skills. Biometric measures of oral, lingual, pharyngeal and laryngeal structures were obtained in fetuses 15-38 weeks gestational age using a four-plane sonographic technique. Accompanying ingestive behaviors were tallied across development. The data from 62 healthy controls were compared to seven cases at risk for postnatal feeding and swallowing dysfunction (Type II Arnold Chiari Malformation, trisomy 18, polyhydramnios, intrauterine growth restriction, Brachmann-de Lange Syndrome). Significant (p<0.001) linear regressions occurred in pharyngeal and lingual growth across gestation while ingestive behavior such as suckling emerged in a sequence of basic to complex movement patterns. Jaw and lip movements progressed from simple mouth opening to repetitive open-close movements important for postnatal suckling. Lingual movements increased in complexity from simple forward thrusting and cupping to anterior-posterior motions necessary for successful suckling at term. Laryngeal movements varied from shallow flutter-like movements along the lumen to more complex and complete adduction-abduction patterns. Fetal swallowing primarily occurred in the presence of concomitant oral-facial stimulatory activity. Significant variations (p<0.01) in the form and function of the ingestive system occurred in comparisons of gestational age-matched controls to at-risk cases. We postulate that prenatal developmental indices of emerging aerodigestive skills may guide postnatal decisions for feeding readiness and, ultimately, advance the care of the premature, medically fragile neonate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-87
Number of pages27
JournalEarly Human Development
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Fetal development
  • Fetal respiration
  • Fetal swallowing
  • Upper aerodigestive growth

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology


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