Breastfeeding is nature's way of providing complete nourishment to a newborn in their first years of life. It can also have a positive impact on their emerging immune system, as well as provide emotional support and stability. But although nursing comes naturally to an infant, there are circumstances that can make it more difficult.
One example is an abnormality that occurs in one in ten babies known as a tongue tie. A tongue tie involves a small band of tissue called a frenum, which connects the underside of the tongue with the floor of the mouth. The frenum, as well as another connecting the inside of the upper lip with the gums, is a normal part of oral anatomy that helps control movement.
But if the frenum is too short, thick or taut, it could restrict the movement of the tongue or lip. This can interfere with the baby acquiring a good seal on the breast nipple that allows them to draw out milk. Instead, the baby may try to chew on the nipple rather than suck on it, leading to an unpleasant experience for both baby and mother.
But this problem can be solved with a minor surgical procedure called a frenotomy (also frenectomy or frenuplasty). It can be a performed in a dentist's office with just a mild numbing agent applied topically to the mouth area (or injected, in rare cases of a thicker frenum) to deaden it. After a few minutes, the baby's tongue is extended to expose the frenum, which is then snipped with scissors or by laser.
There's very little post-op care required (and virtually none if performed with a laser). But there may be a need for a child to “re-learn” how to breastfeed since the abnormal frenum may have caused them to use their oral muscles in a different way to compensate. A lactation expert may be helpful in rehabilitating the baby's muscles to nurse properly.
A restrictive frenum isn't necessarily a dire situation for an infant—they can continue to feed with a bottle filled with formula or pumped breastmilk. But employing this minor procedure can enable them to gain the other benefits associated with breastfeeding.
If you would like more information on tongue ties and other oral abnormalities in children, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tongue Ties, Lip Ties and Breastfeeding.”