When we hear the term “tongue-tied”, most of us have a mental image of someone who is struggling to speak in public, but is stammering nervously and is at a loss for words. In reality, tongue -tie is a medical condition that affects many people, and has special implications for the breastfed baby.
The medical term for the condition known as tongue-tie is “ankyloglossia”. It results when the frenulum (the band of tissue that connects the bottom of the tongue to the floor of the mouth) is too short and tight, causing the movement of the tongue to be restricted.
Tongue-tie is congenital (present at birth) and hereditary (often more that one family member has the condition). It occurs relatively often: between 0.2% and 2% of babies are born with tight frenulums.
To tell if your baby is tongue-tied, look at him and stick out your tongue. Even tiny babies will imitate you. If he is unable to extend his tongue fully, or if it has a heart shaped appearance on the tip, then you should have him evaluated by his doctor. You can also try putting your finger in his mouth (pad side up) until he starts sucking. See if his tongue extends over his gum line to cup the bottom of your finger. If not, you may want to have him checked.
In most cases, the frenulum recedes on its own during the first year, and causes no problems with feeding or speech development. A lot depends on the degree of the tongue-tie: if the points of attachment are on the very tip of the tongue and the top ridge of the bottom gum, feeding and speech are more likely to be affected than if the frenulum is attached further back.
Severe tongue-tie can cause problems with speech. Certain sounds are difficult to make if the tongue can’t move freely (especially ‘th’, ‘s’, ‘d’, ‘l’, and ‘t’). In addition to forming specific sounds, tongue-tie may also make it hard for a child to lick an ice cream cone, stick out his tongue, play a wind instrument, or French kiss. While these may not seem like important skills to you as a new mother, someday they may be very important to your child! Dental development may also be affected, with severe tongue-tie sometimes causing a gap between the two lower front teeth.
Of more immediate importance is the negative impact that a tight frenulum can have on a baby’s ability to breastfeed effectively. In order to extract milk from the breast, the baby needs to move his tongue forward to cup the nipple and areola, drawing it back in his mouth and pressing the tissue against the roof of his mouth. This compresses the lactiferous sinuses (the pockets behind the areola where the milk is stored) and allows the milk to move into the baby’s mouth. The tongue plays an important role in breastfeeding, and if the baby’s frenulum is so short that his tongue can’t extend over the lower gum, he may end up compressing the breast tissue between his gums while he nurses, which can cause nipple soreness or damage.
Tongue-tie can cause feeding difficulties such as low weight gain and constant fussiness in the baby. Nursing mothers may experience nipple trauma (the pain doesn’t go away no matter what position is used), plugged ducts, and mastitis.
Some tongue-tied babies are able to nurse effectively, depending on the way the frenulum is attached, as well as the individual variations in the mother’s breast. If the mother has small or medium nipples, the baby may manage to extract the milk quite well in spite of being tongue-tied. On the other hand, if the nipples are large and/or flat/inverted , then even a slight degree of tongue-tie may cause problems for a breastfeeding baby.
In addition to problems with nipple soreness and weight gain, some other signs that the baby may be having problems nursing effectively include breaking suction often during feedings, and making a clicking sound while nursing. Since these symptoms can also be caused by other problems, it’s a good idea to be evaluated by a knowledgeable health care provider (an IBCLC, if possible) to rule out causes other than tongue-tie. Tongue-tie should definitely be considered a possibility if breastfeeding doesn’t improve even after other measures such as adjustments in positioning have been tried.
If it is determined that tongue-tie is causing breastfeeding difficulties, there is a simple procedure called a “frenetomy” that can quickly correct the problem. In a relatively painless in-office procedure, the doctor simply clips the frenulum to loosen it and allow the tongue full range of motion. It takes less than a second, and because the frenulum contains almost no blood, there is usually only a drop or two of blood. The baby is put on the breast immediately following the procedure, and the bleeding stops almost instantly. Anesthesia and stitches are not necessary. The baby cries more because he is being restrained for a few seconds than he does because of pain. Comparing the procedure to ear piercing is a good analogy. Both involve a second or two of discomfort and a very small risk of infection, but are overall very safe and simple procedures.
In most cases, the mother notices an immediate improvement in both her comfort level and the baby’s ability to nurse more efficiently. The earlier the problem is identified, and the frenotomy is done, the less time it will take him to nurse effectively and comfortably after the procedure. If the tongue-tie isn’t identified and the frenulum isn’t clipped until the baby is several weeks or months old, then it may take longer for him to learn to suck normally. Sometimes suck training is necessary in order for him to adapt to the new range of motion of his tongue. If tongue-tie is causing severe breastfeeding difficulties, then the sooner the frenulum is clipped, the better. Sometimes children end up having the procedure done when they are much older, because the problem isn’t identified until after they begin developing significant speech problems.
Even though clipping the frenulum is a simple, safe, and uncomplicated procedure, it may be difficult to find a doctor who is willing to perform it. The history of treating tongue-tie is somewhat controversial. Up until the nineteenth century, baby’s frenulums were clipped almost routinely. Because of the potential for feeding and speech problems, midwives were reported to keep one fingernail sharpened so that they could sweep under the tongue and snip the frenulum of just about all newborn babies. Any procedure that involves cutting tissue in the mouth can potentially involve infection or damage to the tongue, especially back in the days before sterile conditions and antibiotics. Because the procedure was done so often, even though in most cases it wasn’t really necessary, doctors became very reluctant to clip frenulums at all and the procedure was rarely performed.
Part of the reason frenotomies fell out of favor for many years was the fact that doctors discovered that in all but the most severe cases, speech was not affected by tongue-tie. They preferred to take a “wait and see” approach and let nature take it’s course. Most of the time, the frenulum would stretch out on its own with no intervention.
During the same time period that frenotomies were becoming less common, the rate of breastfeeding also declined dramatically. Bottle-feeding doesn’t present the same feeding difficulties for tongue-tied babies that breastfeeding does, because the mechanics are very different and extension of the tongue doesn’t play as big a role in feeding from the bottle. Since the majority of babies were bottle fed, it was easy for doctors to say that they weren’t going to perform an’ unnecessary procedure’ that didn’t interfere with feeding, and rarely caused speech problems.
Even today, with most infants in this country starting out breastfeeding, it may be difficult to find a doctor who recognizes the problem that tongue-tie can cause for a nursing baby and is willing to perform a frenotomy. The procedure is seldom mentioned in the pediatric literature, and is no longer routinely taught in medical school. As the number of mothers initiating breastfeeding increases, so will the number of health care providers who are aware of the impact tongue-tie has on nursing infants, and know how to diagnose and correct it.
If you feel that your baby’s breastfeeding difficulties may be due to tongue-tie, you may need to work at finding a health care provider who can diagnose the problem and clip the frenulum. Although any pediatrician or general family practitioner can theoretically perform a frenotomy, many prefer to make a referral to an oral surgeon, dentist, or an ENT specialist.
Here’s the link to the site tonguetie.net that has good info about the impact of tongue-tie on breastfeeding, pictures of different degrees of tongue-tie, and a section on the long term impact of tongue-tie in children and adults: http://www.tonguetie.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3&Itemid=3
(Updated September, 2017)
Anne Smith, IBCLC
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