The underside of the tongue is connected to the floor of the mouth by a piece of skin known as the lingual frenulum. However, in babies described as ‘having a tongue-tie’ this piece of skin is shorter than usual, causing restriction in the movement of the tongue.
The medical name for this is ankyloglossia. Some babies who have tongue-tie don’t seem to be bothered by it. In others, it can restrict the tongue’s movement, making it harder to breastfeed.Tongue-tie is sometimes diagnosed during a baby’s routine newborn check, but it’s not always easy to spot. It may not become apparent until your baby has problems feeding.
Tongue-tie affects around 4-11% of newborn babies. It’s more common in boys than girls, and sometimes runs in families.
To breastfeed successfully, the baby needs to latch on to both the breast tissue and nipple, and their tongue needs to cover the lower gum so the nipple is protected from damage.
Babies with tongue-tie aren’t able to open their mouths wide enough to latch on to the breast properly.
If you’re breastfeeding your baby and they have tongue-tie they may:
- have difficulty attaching to the breast or staying attached for a full feed
- feed for a long time, have a short break, then feed again
- be unsettled and seem to be hungry all the time
- not gain weight as quickly as they should
- make a “clicking” sound as they feed – this can also be a sign you need support with the positioning and attachment of your baby at the breast
Other signs of tongue-tie
Other signs that may indicate your baby has tongue-tie include:
- difficulty lifting their tongue up or moving it from side to side
- difficulty sticking their tongue out
- their tongue looks notched or heart-shaped when they stick it out
Treatment isn’t necessary if your baby has tongue-tie but can feed without any problems. If their feeding is affected, treatment involves a simple procedure called tongue-tie division.
Tongue-tie division involves cutting the short, tight piece of skin connecting the underside of the tongue to the floor of the mouth (the lingual frenulum).
It’s a quick, simple and almost painless procedure that usually resolves feeding problems straight away.
In very young babies (those who are only a few months old), the procedure is carried out without anaesthetic (painkilling medication), or with a local anaesthetic that numbs the tongue.
The procedure doesn’t seem to hurt babies. This is because there are very few nerve endings in the area around the floor of the mouth. Some babies sleep through the procedure, while others cry for a few seconds.
A general anaesthetic is usually needed for older babies with teeth, which means they’ll be unconscious throughout the procedure.
The baby’s head is held securely while sharp, sterile scissors are used to snip the tongue-tie. Some practitioners use a laser instead of scissors.
It only takes a few seconds, and you can start feeding your baby immediately afterwards.
There should be little blood loss, although some bleeding is likely. A white patch may form under the tongue, which takes 24 to 48 hours to heal, but doesn’t bother the baby.
Research suggests most babies who have treatment for tongue-tie find breastfeeding easier afterwards.
Older children and adults
Untreated tongue-tie may not cause any problems as a child gets older, and any tightness may resolve naturally as the mouth develops.
However, tongue-tie can sometimes cause problems such as speech difficulties and difficulty eating certain foods.
Tongue-tie division can be carried out in older children and adults, although it’s usually done under general anaesthetic and may involve using stitches.