Kids Health Info

Barium study (barium swallow and meal)

  • A barium study is a fluoroscopy examination of the oesophagus (food tube) and stomach. A barium swallow is an examination of the oesophagus and a barium meal is an examination of the stomach. Fluoroscopy is a type of medical imaging that uses X-rays to create a moving image of internal parts of the body.

    To do the examinations, your child will drink a special liquid (called barium) that shows up on the fluoroscopy images. If the doctor needs to see the barium go through your child’s stomach and small bowel, then it is called a follow through.

    Why does my child need barium study?

    A barium study may be performed for different reasons, including to:

    • check the structure and functioning of the oesophagus, stomach or bowel
    • diagnose, treat and manage diseases
    • monitor response to treatment.

    What to expect with a barium study

    Before the barium study

    Do not allow your child anything to eat or drink for four hours before their appointment (babies may be breastfed three hours before a barium meal).

    To help distract your child and keep them occupied before and during the procedure, you may wish to bring your child’s favourite toy, electronic device or book to the appointment.

    During the barium study

    Real-time images are captured as your child swallows the barium, and these images are displayed on a screen. The barium shows up well on the X-ray images. Barium tastes like a thick milkshake (wherever possible, flavouring may be added) and your child will drink it while lying in different positions on the examination table.

    Your child must remain still throughout the examination, and may need to be held in the correct position. You may be asked to stay and help hold and comfort your child; however, if there is any chance the parent or carer might be pregnant, they cannot remain in the room during the X-ray examination.

    The fluoroscopy camera will move around your child. Although it will come quite close, it will never touch them. The examination usually takes about 20 minutes, but this can vary depending on how complex the case is.

    If your child needs to have a follow through, extra images are taken of the abdomen as the contrast moves through the bowel. This procedure may take several hours depending on how long it takes the contrast to move all the way through the bowel. Your child will be able to move around the hospital between X-rays.

    After the barium study

    There are no immediate after-effects of this procedure. Your child should be given lots of fluids to avoid constipation. For the next day or two, their bowel motions may appear white because of the barium.

    The referring doctor will receive the report of the examination within a few days. If you have any questions about the results of the barium swallow and meal, speak to your doctor.

    Key points to remember

    • Barium swallow and meal is a fluoroscopy (X-ray) examination that can be used to show the oesophagus, stomach and small bowel. 
    • Your child will be required to fast before the procedure. 
    • Ideally, a parent or carer will stay with the child during the test and help keep them still. Anyone who is pregnant will not be able to stay in the room for the test.
    • Your child’s bowel motions may appear white for a day or two following the procedure.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    My child is very anxious about medical procedures and I am worried she won't stay still for the barium study. How can I help her?

    To get some ideas of how to talk to your child about the appointment before you come to hospital, see our fact sheet Reducing your child's discomfort during procedures.

    You can also download our Okee in Medical Imaging app, which includes games and information especially designed to help children feel more comfortable about having medical imaging done at the RCH, and includes fun training on how to keep still.

    Are there any side effects of the barium swallow and meal?

    It is extremely rare for a child to have an allergic reaction to the barium. In the event of a reaction, specially trained staff will be on-hand to manage any symptoms. The barium does not cause any long-term complications.

    Why did staff ask if my 12-year-old daughter could be pregnant? 

    We understand this is a sensitive, and sometimes shocking, question to have your child asked. The RCH follows the advice of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, which recommends asking the pregnancy status of female patients who are of childbearing age and undergoing imaging that includes the uterus (e.g. X-rays of abdomen, pelvis, lumbar spine). This is to make sure that any possible unborn babies are not exposed to a unsafe radiation dose.

    Children vary greatly in their development, and some preteen females are developed enough that they could become pregnant. To make sure it doesn't appear to be a judgement on the individual, the RCH has made it a rule to ask any female aged 12 and over whether they could be pregnant. We do our best to approach the question sensitively and are always happy to answer further questions from parents or patients.


    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Medical Imaging department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed October 2018.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.

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Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.