tongue tie, tongue tied, toddler, baby

What is a tongue-tie, and what should I do about it?

Up to one in ten babies in the UK are born with a tongue-tie. Here, Dorothy Lepkowska, whose daughter was born tongue-tied, explains what this is and how it can be treated

I spotted it the first time my baby cried. As she opened her mouth and wailed, her tongue formed a heart-shape, and there was a tight piece of skin holding the tip of her tongue to the underside of her mouth. She was unable to move her tongue beyond her lower lip.

I raised it immediately with the midwife and nurses, but was told there was nothing to worry about unless my baby was struggling to feed. As our daughter grew, they said, the tip of her tongue would too.  Nevertheless, I mentioned my concerns to our GP and health visitor and asked if the skin could be cut while she was still tiny. The health visitor told me that ‘no doctor will perform such a procedure’. This seemed odd – it was hardly an organ transplant.

My daughter spoke quite early and very clearly, but struggled to make the ‘th’ sound.  She recently recalled that her nursery teachers didn’t encourage her even to try to make the sound, because they knew she couldn’t. Most of the time, however, it seemed not to affect her, though the tip of her tongue was certainly not growing as we had been told it would.

About two years ago, at barely five years old, she began to experience terrible pain in her mouth. One Saturday evening, unable to calm her or relieve her pain, we ended up in the emergency surgery of our local community hospital. The GP on duty diagnosed the problem immediately and explained while our daughter was growing and her mouth developing, her tongue was effectively unable to keep up because the frenulum – thin piece of skin – was keeping her tongue tightly fixed to the floor of her mouth. He was surprised that the problem had not been dealt with sooner and referred us to a paediatrician who could perform the appropriate surgery, known as ‘tongue-tie division’, before it got any worse.

For reasons which remain unclear to us we had been completely misinformed years earlier that this there was no treatment for tongue-tie when this was not the case, nor do we understand the reluctance to view the condition as a potential problem.  Not only is it a simple and relatively painless procedure in a newborn, is it not uncommon. Now, as an older child, our daughter had to have a general anaesthetic, making the procedure slightly more complicated because of her age and the fact she had teeth.

Tongue-tie, also known as ankyloglossia, affects up to 11% of children, so potentially almost one in ten, to some degree. Among the biggest concerns in tongue-tied babies is that they won’t be able to latch on to the nipple, while bottle-fed babies can have difficulty in creating a good seal on the teat, which means they aren’t sucking properly.

Not all children will need the procedure my daughter did and many people who are tongue-tied grow into adulthood without any problems.  The NCT has previously written to Ministers calling for improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of tongue-tie, claiming that treatment was often “patchy and sometimes non-existent”. The NCT also believes that the impact of tongue-tie was over-looked in recent years with some health care professionals lacking the confidence to make a diagnosis or to offer advice.

If you’re concerned about your child’s feeding or speech because you believe they’re tongue-tied, then seek medical opinion and continue to ask if you’re not satisfied with the response.  Some areas offer private tongue-tie services if NHS treatments are variable.

Further reading

There is also a petition currently running, asking the Secretary of State for Health to make it mandatory for the NHS to check for, and correct, tongue-tie at birth. You can find out more about the petition, and sign up if you would like to, here

Written for the Pre-school Learning Alliance by Dorothy Lepkowska.

This article is for information purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical help. If you or your child is unwell you should consult a medical professional.