UNCW Assistant Professor Part of $2.66 Million Research Project

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Assistant Professor of Nursing Hayley Estrem is participating in a $2.66 million research project to identify signs that certain infants and young toddlers may develop chronic feeding disorders. Estrem will receive $123,369 over the five years of the multi-institutional project. The research is funded by the National Institute for Nursing Research, part of the National Institutes of Health. 

A personal experience led the onetime critical-care nurse to pursue her doctorate with a research focus on feeding disorders in children. Her oldest son was born 13 years ago with a rare genetic disorder that has required him to have a feeding tube since he was a toddler. 

“My son’s experience completely changed my career trajectory,” she said. “I wanted to be able to help other parents avoid some of the struggles that my family had experienced. I saw how pediatric feeding disorder was a common feature for so many chronic childhood conditions. I have found that the feeding is often the problem that takes the most time and energy from parents, and causes families to make significant adaptations.” 

Over the course of two years, Estrem will conduct interviews with parents of about 285 “graduates” of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cone Health in Greensboro. The study team also will conduct periodic surveys with parents about their children’s feeding habits. 

Identifying markers that predict potential feeding disorders in infants and young toddlers will allow for intervention before the disorder becomes behavioral and thus more complicated to treat. Currently, the average age for diagnosing feeding disorders is just over 2 years, but the markers may present much earlier, Estrem said. 

Other researchers on the multi-institutional team will be responsible for different parts of the study. Suzanne Thoyre of UNC-Chapel Hill is the principal investigator, and some of her team members, including Estrem, are former students. The project includes researchers at UNC-CH, Boston College and UNCW. 

“We started out as Dr. Thoyre’s graduate students,” Estrem said. “Then we formed this group – the ‘Feeding Flock’ – and started developing flagship measures to identify factors that may predict potential feeding disorders.” The group also recently conducted an online symposium for Feeding Matters, an organization created by parents of children with feeding issues. 

Advancing research that has a significant impact on the community or region is a key component of the university’s Strategic Plan

“Dr. Estrem’s research, along with that of the larger, multi-institutional team, has the potential to improve the quality of life of children at risk for chronic feeding disorders, as well as their families,” said Linda Haddad, director of the UNCW School of Nursing. 

– Tricia Vance