When Rebecca Dickinson was having trouble nursing her first-born, Emma, she wasn’t sure what she was doing wrong. “Emma just wasn’t breastfeeding well,” says the Binbrook, Ont., mom. “She had an issue with latching and sucking.”
It wasn’t until a well-baby check-up with their family doctor that they discovered what the problem was. “Emma began screaming in the doctor’s office (because she was naked) and the doctor noticed she was tongue tied.”
Tongue tie, also known as ankyloglossia or anchored tongue, is a condition in which an unusually tight band of tissue tethers the tongue to the bottom of the mouth. This restricts the tongue’s mobility, affecting the way a person eats, swallows speaks and, of course, breastfeeds.
In Rebecca’s case, the doctor gave two options: “We could leave it and snip it later on, or snip it right there in the office. Since Emma wasn’t latching properly, he suggested we snip it there as it would help with her feeding.”
Rebecca noticed immediate results. “Emma was latching properly and sucking better, too. Breastfeeding was a much more positive experience after the procedure.”
Dr. Janine Flanagan, a developmental pediatrician at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, says that not all tongue ties look the same and can be difficult to spot. And while some tongue ties won’t cause any problems, others will definitely affect breastfeeding.
“Parents should see their doctor if there are signs of a tongue tie and difficulties in feeding, swallowing, or speech-sound development,” says Dr. Flanagan. “It is never certain that tongue tie is the main or only cause for these difficulties, but investigating its possible role makes sense. A simple surgical procedure (frenotomy) can correct most simple tongue ties in an office setting.”
The quick procedure involves your family doctor using sterile scissors to snip the frenulum. Because there are few nerve endings in this area of the body, discomfort and blood loss is minimal. For more complicated tongue ties, a procedure called a frenuloplasty may be required and is done at a hospital, with anesthesia.
Often tongue tie may persist without immediately noticeable symptoms. However, as your child grows, it may affect speech, oral hygiene (due to not being able to use the tongue to clear debris from the teeth and gums), licking movements (like moistening the lips) or even playing an instrument.
Dr. Flanagan says, “Like most things in pediatrics, early intervention is the optimal form of management.”
Turns out, tongue tie is pretty common. Here are just a few tales.
Like Mother Like Son: “My son Owen was slow to gain weight and all the doctors and lactation consultants said I wasn’t producing enough milk. Finally, when Owen was around six months I saw a different lactation consultant who spotted the tie. The lactation consultant recommended a local dentist who releases ties and I met with her. She looked Owen over and since I didn’t have any pain while breastfeeding and he was already six months and eating solids great, she recommended not to bother. Side note: That same lactation consultant diagnosed my own tongue tie the same day as Owen’s! That explains why my mom said breastfeeding was so painful for her!” –Larissa B.
Cut it out: “My son Chase was tongue tied, but no one picked up on it when he was a baby. However during some speech specialist appointments later in life, they noticed and he had it fixed this past summer. Chase is eight now and had his tongue cut by laser in a doctor’s office. It was a very big area that they cut out; I was shocked!” –Nikky L.
Quick snip: “I knew something was up when my son wasn’t latching properly in the hospital after he was born. I nursed my first two babies until after their first birthdays, so I knew something wasn’t right when he just didn’t get a good latch. When the nurse came in, I asked to see the lactation consultant and she confirmed that he was tongue tied. The pediatrician came in and snipped under his tongue. He was just three days old! The whole process took maybe 30 seconds. He squirted sugar water into his mouth first as a numbing agent and then snipped. Immediately after that, I nursed him and he latched on perfectly. I continued to nurse him until he was nearly a year with no problems!” –Mindy B.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2016.