Tongue Tie: What is it and Why Does My Baby Have It?

The tongue consists of an amazing group of muscles.

These muscles work in harmony allowing us to properly chew, swallow, eat, speak, and breathe. In newborns, the tongue is crucial in palate development. Their tongue rests on the roof of their mouth and gently expands their upper palate as they grow. Your newborn’s tongue also has a very important role in latching on while nursing and feeding.

We’re all born with a frenulum. It’s that thin strip of tissue that connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth. What happens, though, when the frenulum is attached too tightly or connected at the base of the tongue? The result is what we call a tongue tie. This problem may seem small, but it can interfere with your baby’s growth and development.

What causes tongue ties?

Tongue ties are common. They present in as many as one in ten newborns. This condition is a congenital birth defect, and sometimes it’s hereditary.

During embryo development, the tongue is fused to the floor of the mouth. Generally, the frenulum detaches before birth, but sometimes it doesn’t detach as much as it should, resulting in a tongue that is tied too closely or too tightly to the floor of the mouth. When this limits the movement of their tongue and causes problems, we call it a tongue tie.

Visual Signs of a Tongue Tie 

You may be wondering if it’s possible to tell if your baby has a tongue-tie by observation, and yes, there are cues that point towards it.

When your baby sticks out their tongue, it could appear heart-shaped. Observe your baby while crying. Does their tongue rest on the floor of their mouth, rather than towards the roof? Or does it form a “dish” shape, curved up along the corners? Is your baby unable to touch their tongue to the top of their mouth? This could indicate a tongue tie.

Your baby may still have a tongue tie even in the absence of these cues. It’s more about how much the tongue-tie restricts the movement and whether or not that restriction causes problems for you and your baby.

A tongue-tie can cause your baby to experience difficulty feeding- and discomfort.

When your baby’s tongue movement is restricted, it can make it really hard for them to properly latch on while nursing or feeding from a bottle. This difficulty latching causes your baby to have to put extra effort into sucking a bottle or nipple. And sucking shouldn’t require this level of effort. You may notice your baby biting and grinding down on the nipple, making clicking noises while sucking, or feeding for long periods of time with short breaks in between. Your baby may even fall asleep during feeds out of exhaustion.

You may notice that your baby tends to gulp the milk in, causing them to feel overwhelmed and stop feeding out of frustration. This can make feeding times really stressful for both of you.

It’s unavoidable for all babies to swallow small amounts of air while feeding, but an improper latch allows for the baby to take in too much in the case of a tongue tie. This can result in hiccups, gas, reflux, and a fussy, colicky baby. In fact, this fussiness might not just be related to feeding. Your baby might also have problems sleeping.

Most babies with a tongue tie will not present with all of these signs and symptoms. It’s always important to consult with your pediatrician or lactation consultant if you’re concerned about a tongue tie. 

Breastfeeding moms may also experience pain.

If you’re breastfeeding, you’ll likely find that the baby isn’t the only one who suffers from the tongue tie. You might find that your milk supply is low or overabundant, and having too much could lead to mastitis. Your baby’s improper latch and sucking technique can cause your nipples to become cracked, painful, and sore.

Can a tongue tie cause problems if left untreated?

The answer to this question is yes. Untreated tongue ties can cause problems later down the road, too. This all comes down to tongue posture. The tongue should naturally rest on the roof of the mouth. If there’s a tongue tie present, the tongue will tend to rest on the floor of the mouth instead. This can block the airway – potentially linking to serious problems such as mouth breathing and sleep apnea.

Tongue posture is an important part in your baby’s palate development. When your baby’s tongue can rest on the roof of their mouth, it helps the palate expand and develop the way it’s supposed to. Without this help, the palate may end up narrow, high, and crowded, which are also features linked to sleep apnea and breathing disorders.

Some other problems that could come up as your baby grows include:

  • Speech delays and difficulty making certain sounds, due to restricted movement
  • Difficulty with certain oral activities, such as drinking from a straw or blowing
  • Poor oral hygiene, since they’re unable to clean out their mouth with their tongue after eating.

The risk of these added complications can be avoided with treatment. 

Treating Tongue Tie with a Frenectomy

A common procedure used to correct a tongue tie is called a frenectomy. This is a short, safe, effective procedure, in which the frenulum is detached with a laser. 

My Chico Dentist uses a soft tissue laser for frenectomies. There are benefits to the use of the laser, including a more precise, neat treatment and a reduced risk of infection and bleeding. 

The mouth is very forgiving and heals quickly. Recovery time is short. Your baby should be able to go back to feeding right away.

If you’re wanting to learn more, feel free to reach out and schedule an appointment with us. 

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