All Tied Up: What’s Up With Lip and Tongue Ties?

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It’s a pain that’s hard to describe unless you’ve felt it for yourself. You have a squirmy newborn in your arms whose mouth is moving restlessly. You position your baby and let her latch onto your nipples. And then the pain begins. It feels like your baby is mashing your nipple to pieces while sharp teeth are simultaneously pinning it into place, and you’re expected to relax enough for your milk to let down and your baby to be able to eat during this experience.

You may be experiencing the joys (sarcasm heavily intended) of a baby with a lip and/or tongue tie.

If you haven’t heard of this, the medical term for lip and tongue ties is ankyloglossia, and it’s a condition where the tongue or lip is “tied down” by the frenulum, the membrane that connects the tongue or lip in the mouth. Typically this means the frenulum is holding the tongue or upper lip so that the baby doesn’t have the mobility needed to achieve a good latch for nursing. You may think that this shouldn’t affect your kids if they’re older or if you aren’t nursing, but tongue and lip ties can have effects on babies into early childhood and even adulthood.

Both of my boys have had lip and tongue ties that made nursing painful at best and excruciating at worst. With my first, I had no idea that his ties were as severe as they were because pediatricians and nurses all seemed to think he was fine when he was born. As I started nursing him, however, the pain was intense and led to many tears when we learned he was losing weight and unable to nurse properly. It took a lactation consultant to explain that his ties were causing him to nurse incorrectly and that we needed to see an oral surgeon to get the ties released.

The process was quick and easy, despite not being painless for our son. However, it was a necessity that helped put us on the path to proper nursing. It took a lot of work to get our son back to nursing properly, but once we worked with our lactation consultant and a chiropractor, we were able to get him nursing and gaining weight correctly.

With my second child, the same thing happened at delivery. Every person who examined him said the lip and tongue ties weren’t an issue and didn’t need to be corrected. However I knew as soon as we started nursing that we needed to get them fixed. Nursing shouldn’t be that painful, and it is possible to nurse comfortably. So we saw the oral surgeon again, this time a week after my son was born, and his ties were clipped. Having the procedure done so early ensured a much easier transition to proper nursing for us.

You might be wondering why you should care about lip or tongue ties in children. Maybe you’ve been told your child has ties but not to worry about them for one reason or another.

Here are a few things that lip and tongue ties can cause depending on their severity:

  • Difficulty latching onto nipples, bottles, and pacifiers.

  • Problems swallowing, especially when first trying solids.

  • Speech delays and problems.

  • Irregular tooth spacing and sometimes tooth decay.

I’ve met adults who had to have their own lip and tongue ties released by an oral surgeon after they discovered them. Lip and tongue ties are considered midline defects and typically can be found in siblings, so if one of your children has them, it’s likely other children you have will, too.

I still wonder why the physicians we saw in the hospital didn’t notice how bad my sons’ ties were, but I am so glad we got the help we needed. People will tell you that nursing hurts as a new mom, and it’s true that nursing can be uncomfortable when you’re first getting used to it. However, it shouldn’t stay painful. You shouldn’t experience cracked, bleeding nipples and a fear of the intense pain that comes from nursing your child. If you are experiencing those things, I would highly recommend seeing an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (also known as an IBCLC) for an assessment of your child’s nursing.

For infants with ties, the process is as simple as either getting ties clipped or removed by laser. Both my boys had their ties clipped in the oral surgeon’s office in under five minutes. We were given exercises to perform on their mouths to stretch the tissue, and for us, that was that. Our boys both benefited from the procedure, and I was in so much less pain as a result!

Have you dealt with tongue or lip ties? What helped you with dealing with ties or deciding how to proceed? Let me know in the comments.

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Rachel is wife to Daniel and mom to an adorable almost-toddler boy. You can find her with a cup of coffee in hand and a book waiting for her to read. Her "to be read" pile is enormous, and she loves to find great deals at McKay's Used Books. She writes about self-care and learning to parent over at her blog (www.alifewithalittle.com) and enjoys window shopping, going to open houses, and spending time on free or cheap adventures with her family. She's always on the lookout for the next free donut day or opportunity to get another book in whatever series she's currently reading!

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