There is a visible string of tissue underneath your baby’s tongue that is attached to the floor of his mouth and is called the frenulum. Babies who have tongue-tie have a frenulum that is too short causing problems with the mobility of their tongue. The medical term for tongue-tie is ankyloglossia.
In mild cases babies born with tongue-tie are not really affected but in more severe cases the baby’s tongue can be nearly fused with the bottom of his mouth. Doctors are not always in agreement about tongue-tie diagnoses especially in mild cases therefore it is not easy to establish how common it is. Some research suggests that approximately four per cent of babies are born with tongue-tie and others estimate about eleven per cent. It has not been proven that it is a hereditary condition either.
In terms of identifying tongue-tie in your own baby, your doctor may discover it during his first check up or your mid-wife may have checked by putting her finger in his mouth. It is not always easy to detect and may become more apparent later on if you are having problems feeding him. Certainly, if you are having issues with breastfeeding and your baby is finding it difficult to latch on to your nipple then ask your midwife, doctor or health visitor to check your little one for tongue-tie. Bear in mind that breast-feeding can be difficult to begin with for other common reasons and does not suit everyone so it is not always a case of tongue-tie. Most mothers and babies improve at breastfeeding with time.
Babies with tongue-tie do not always have feeding problems but some do and this can include slipping off the breast when trying to feed, difficulties in latching on to the nipple and not gaining sufficient weight. If tongue-tie is causing the problems you may find that you have sore nipples and you can be left feeling very frustrated.
If you are concerned that your child’s speech will be affected if they suffer from tongue-tie, there is not actually much evidence to prove that it does. During a very small study children with tongue-tie and speech problems had minor operations to correct the condition and it was discovered that their speech was improved.
The simple operation to correct tongue-tie is called a frenulotomy where a doctor or specialist midwife makes a snip in the string at the bottom of the tongue (the frenulum). It is not thought to be painful for young babies so they do not put the baby to sleep. Sometimes the area is numbed first but not always. With older babies and children the operation could be more complex so an anaesthetic is required.
Some babies and children do not require an operation and whether they or do not can cause controversy. The National Health Service in the UK advises that frenulotomy is mostly safe with young babies and can be very beneficial in helping successful breastfeeding. Certainly after the operation most babies’ conditions improve and often immediately.