The Procedure That Helps Babies Who Have Trouble Breastfeeding

Ankyloglossia, or "tongue-tie," makes it difficult for some infants to latch on to their mothers -- and it can cause problems later in life, too

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Breast milk benefits babies, as the research continues to show. The Surgeon General has urged women to breastfeed if at all possible, since it is associated with many positive outcomes for the child.

But sometimes women can run into problems breastfeeding, and they may give up in frustration if it becomes too difficult or they encounter too many barriers. A common reason that breastfeeding can be difficult is when the newborn has trouble latching on to the breast. This may occur because the baby has ankyloglossia, or more commonly, "tongue-tie" or "tether tongue." Here, the band of tissue connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too pronounced, and doesn't allow the tongue the full range of motion. This condition makes it difficult for the infant to latch on and perform the motion needed to draw milk from the breast.

"For an infant to properly breastfeed, the baby needs to move his or her tongue to their lips to allow sucking to occur," professor Dale Tylor said in a Vanderbilt news release. "If there's a tethering, the baby has a hard time latching on and uses his or her gums or lips. It becomes painful for the mom, and can even cause bleeding."

Babies who have the condition may get frustrated with feeding, feed for excessive amounts of time, or fall asleep partway through feeding.

Tylor and her colleagues suggest getting infants checked for the condition, since there is an easy fix for many babies who have it. An outpatient procedure called frenotomy clips the restricting skin to allow the tongue its full range of motion. About two-thirds of the babies who suffer from ankyloglossia can successfully breastfeed after the procedure.

Uncorrected, the condition can lead to problems further on into childhood and even later in life. "They may have problems taking a spoon," Tylor said. "Or they may not be able to lick an ice-cream cone or stick out their tongues with their brother, sister, or peers. They could even have problems into adulthood with common social activities like brushing their teeth or even kissing."

Tylor and her team also discovered that children whose tongue-tie is corrected have fewer speech problems later in life.

"Health professionals and society are telling mothers that breast milk is the best nourishment for their child, and we need to follow through and help the moms who are having problems feeding because of tongue-tie," Tylor said. If you suspect your child may have tongue-tie, it is worth getting him or her checked out, and ask your doctor to determine whether the frenotomy procedure is appropriate.

Dale Tylor is a professor of Pediatric Otolaryngology at the Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Image: wavebreakmedia ltd/Shutterstock.

This article originally appeared on, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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