The Agony of Tongue Tie and What We Can Do About It

When you think that having babies is vital to the continuation of the species, nature certainly doesn’t make it easy. Any entrepreneur hoping to put the concept of ‘children’ before the Dragons’ Den panel would be laughed out of the studio when they were forced to admit that their product mercilessly saps the energy of the very people designated to nurture and nourish it. And that’s just the standard model as well, not even mentioning the one in ten kids who are born with a tongue tie.

I like to think that we are responsible for 18 children not having to battle with feeding problems, colic, wind and all that goes with ankyloglossia (the official term, apparently), because both of ours were born with a tongue tie. If only my lottery numbers defied the odds so successfully.

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What is a Tongue Tie?

A tongue tie is when the piece of skin under the tongue is too short or runs too far towards the front of the tongue, restricting its movement. In some children, the entire tongue is fused to the bottom of the mouth, but even much less severe tongue ties can adversely affect how a baby feeds. This can cause discomfort for the breastfeeding mum and means the baby takes in air when consuming milk, causing chronic wind. In some cases, the child can struggle to put on weight or even begin to lose weight. Those with tongue ties may also find that their speech is affected in later life.

The treatment is a simple snip to the frenulum, a procedure that increases in discomfort the later in the child’s life it is performed. However, many hospitals are currently reticent to diagnose and deal with less-severe tongue ties, which could mean that some mums decide to abandon breastfeeding altogether.

Our Tongue Tie Story

We only discovered Elsa’s tongue tie when she was four-and-a-half months old, following a hugely tough time with feeding. It was spotted by someone else and we struggled to persuade our health visitor that Elsa should be properly checked out. In fact, she dismissed us and told us that “tongue ties are trendy at the moment”. Documentaries about the 80s will tend to fixate on the fascination for snoods, shows about the 90s make great play of the penchant for shellsuits, but I doubt there will ever be an edition of I Love 2013 where Stuart Maconie asks “what was the deal with tongue ties back then? They were everywhere!”

Once we knew what the problem was, we wanted it sorting right away because the first few months had been so tough on my wife Jill, and Elsa. We were told an NHS referral would take an age if we were granted one, so we went private. It ran into the hundreds of pounds, but there was a marked improvement right away. If it had been discovered earlier and taken seriously, we’d have been saved a lot of pain – physical, emotional and in the wallet.

Tongue Tie

With Seth, we were obviously on high alert. In order to give both children the best possible chance of succeeding in the touch-your-nose-with-the-tip-of-your-tongue skill test that takes place in every school playground, we wanted him checked on the day he was born. No one would make a firm commitment one way or another, though. One midwife thought maybe there was a tie, another thought there wasn’t and the paediatrician couldn’t make up his mind.

It seems obvious that the NHS policy is to be sceptical when it comes to tongue ties, but then that’s always the case with these fleeting crazes. It’s just like the people who resisted the trend of Global Hypercolor t-shirts, which changed colour to show the parts of your body that were the hottest. I understand that not all tongue ties affect feeding and speech but, having already had one child helped immeasurably by the minor surgery, it would have been nice to have been taken seriously this time and to actually have seen someone with some knowledge of the subject.

There is an expert at the hospital where Seth was born, but she seems to spend very little time actually onsite. We were told that the infant feeding specialist wasn’t around on certain days of the week because, presumably, babies only need to eat on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. After a number of days of more tortuous feeding, we eventually received an appointment and then had his tie cut two weeks and two bouts of mastitis later, thankfully with positive results.

Tongue Tie Petition

London dad Andy Johnson-Creek, who blogs under the name Debut Dad, also has first-hand experience of the pain of tongue tie and has decided to do something about it. He’s calling on Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and NHS England CEO Simon Stevens to ensure that the UK falls into line with France and Italy in checking for and remedying tongue tie on the day of birth. That shouldn’t be too much to ask, should it?

He has posted a petition online and, at the time of writing, is nudging 100,000 signatures.

Why This is Important

I know there isn’t an endless pot of cash for the NHS and that ensuring there is a trained practitioner in every maternity ward will require an outlay, if only in providing extra training courses. However, the money currently wasted on dealing with the effects of a tongue tie is huge and would surely dwarf the cost of sending midwives on a few seminars (sandwiches with curled-up edges included).

There would be no need for repeat consultations, GP appointments and fruitless breastfeeding clinics that will never get to the root of the problem, because no end of finessing of position or latch will solve the issues of a child who can’t stay on the nipple when their tongue is impeded.

Making life as easy as possible for babies and new parents should be at the forefront of maternity services, if only to relieve the burden on the NHS in later weeks and months. On Dragons’ Den, this would be the solution suggested by the fifth multimillionaire (probably Peter Jones), after the others had all scoffed and declared themselves ‘out’. Jones would swoop in, offer the full cash amount for three times the equity the entrepreneur initially wanted to give away, on condition they adjust their plan. He’d bag himself the deal there and then. It’s classic ten-minutes-to-the-end-of-the-programme stuff.

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