What is Infant Tongue Tie?

Infant tongue tie is something that has come to light in the past few years as more and more of us mommies are breastfeeding our babies. I have been getting questions at an increasing rate on this topic. Does my baby have tongue tie? Is it a problem? Do I need to do something about it?

What is tongue tie?
Tongue tie is when the tip of the tongue is attached to the floor of the mouth. There are varying degrees of tongue tie from minimal attachment to the full length of the tongue being attached to the floor of the mouth.

What problems can it cause?
In infants, it can cause difficulty feeding/latching and for momma, it can cause nipple pain upon feeding.

Do I need to do something about my infant’s tongue tie?
This is the process I use to decide if my patients are candidates for the surgical procedure to relieve the tongue: I ask parents if it is causing a problem?” If the parents say no, it is usually something they have noticed visually and not noticed problems. These children are not a candidate. If the parents say “yes,” then I ask what problems they are experiencing. If the parents say the child has colic or gastric reflux and is fussy, they are not typically a candidate. These issues are best brought up to the child’s pediatrician and once GI issues have been ruled out, they may be a candidate. If the parents say the child is having difficulty eating, is in a low weight class, or the mom is having pain on feeding, then the surgery may be helpful. Notice, I said MAY be helpful. This is the controversial part! Scientific research has found a correlation between the surgical removal of the attachment and better feeding/less nipple pain. Is it a relatively harmless procedure? Yes. Is the recovery difficult? Not typically. Is it helpful in some cases? Yes. Is it 100% effective? No. Am I going to recommend it to all of my patients with tongue tie? No. A serious discussion needs to occur between the provider and the parents where the pros and cons of the procedure are weighed to determine if it is the right course of action. A good clinical evaluation is important. Sometimes the tongue is not the main source of the problem. Occasionally, the top lip can be attached firmly and is not allowing the baby to latch effectively.

Who performs this type of procedure?
Due to its controversial nature, only a select few doctors perform it. The best place to start in most cases is a lactation specialist. Although they do not perform the procedure, usually they know who in your area does. Among the list may be Ear, Nose and Throat physicians, Neonatologists, Periodontists (dentists who specialize in gums), Pedodontists (children’s dentist), and Oral Surgeons.

What does the surgery entail?
There is a section of gum tissue under the tongue that attaches to the floor of the mouth. This tissue is called a “frenum” or “frenulum.” The frenum is cut with either scissors, a scalpel, or a soft tissue laser to allow the tongue to move freely. Sometimes it is necessary to place stitches to allow the tissue to heal, but it is not always required.

Will my baby have to be put to sleep?
This depends on the surgeon you are using. Typically these babies are less than 6 months of age and general anesthesia is not required. Some ENT physicians may combine this procedure in with another surgery, for example, if your child also needs ear tubes. Most of the time, these procedures can be completed with your baby awake.

Will my child feel pain?
Babies are like adults. They do feel pain just like anyone else. But, there are risks to giving infants numbing medication because they are so small, and it is easy to give them too much. Some practitioners are of the school of thought that the child will not remember the procedure, so they do not give the baby numbing medicine. This is a topic to discuss with your surgeon and decide how you would like to proceed.

What is the recovery like?
Typically, following the procedure, the provider will give the baby to the mom to begin breastfeeding and help soothe the child. Yes, unless your child was put to sleep, your baby will scream throughout the procedure. This is normal and is not necessarily indicative of pain. Most babies do not like to have their mouth messed with, and their only known way of responding is to cry. Before you leave with your baby, you may be given instructions to do tongue and lip exercises at home. Typically the surgeon will schedule a follow up exam a week to a month following the surgery. This will allow them to monitor the healing and make sure the procedure was successful. In the meantime, Tylenol/Motrin can be used for any post-operative pain unless the pediatrician recommends otherwise.

I hope this is helpful and not overwhelming. I am attaching links to this post with more information on the topic.