Breastfeeding and tongue ties: What you need to know

breastfeeding latch with a tongue tie

Breastfeeding can be a sweet and smooth journey, filled with loving gazes and milk-drunk moments. It can also be bumpy, take a wrong turn and leave mums feeling completely lost.

From the very first breastfeed with her first son Ziggy, New Zealand mum Emily Holdaway was in agony. The mere thought of feeding her beautiful boy brought her to tears. And everyone told her it would get better. But it didn’t. It took eight weeks before the new mum had an answer – Ziggy had tongue tie.

‘I don’t think anyone took my pain seriously’

Emily Holdaway tongue tie journey

Emily told Mum’s Grapevine that she wants to educate other mums about tongue tie, after her own traumatic experience.

“It had hurt to feed Ziggy since he was born, every time he latched on my toes curled, and as soon as he was done I slathered a calming balm all over my nipples. I talked about it with my midwife and my GP, but everyone told me ‘this is normal and it will get better’,” Emily explains.

“He was gaining weight, and my nipples were not cracked or bleeding, so I don’t think anyone took the pain seriously – except me. At one stage I said that would rather give birth again than feed him, but still I was told ‘it will get better’.”

As she forged on, Emily’s breastfeeding relationship with Ziggy began to suffer. “I didn’t want to feed him. The thought of feeding him made me want to cry and each feed I would stare at the wall trying not to cry. I was determined to breastfeed, and I was holding on to the ‘it will get better hope, but it was making me feel resentful to my baby who was just hungry.”

It took a bout of mastitis to finally get Emily and Ziggy on the right track.

“I posted a picture of my red, blotchy boob on my personal Facebook. It was my other mum friends who asked if he had been assessed for a tongue tie. I didn’t even know what a tongue tie was. And so I eventually found a lactation consultant, and at eight-weeks-old his tie was released.” The result, as seen in the images of Ziggy at the top of the article, was a completely different latch.

“The difference was immediate. We are still feeding and he is 26 months old.”

What should mums know?

Tongue tie in baby

Emily wants other mums to feel they can speak up if they feel something isn’t right.

“Because there is so much misinformation about breastfeeding and mums are starting the journey from a place of self-doubt. So many mums think ‘it will be hard’, ”I won’t be able to do it’, and when the journey stops short they blame themselves, they say they weren’t good enough, that their body failed them. And this is not fair!

“The failure is not that of the mum, it is a failure of support and information from the professionals in her and her babies life. And so, by arming new parents with knowledge, hopefully, we can empower them to find solutions and push to be heard.”

Emily is concerned that tongue tie is seen as a ‘fad’. “Anyone minimising the impact and effect of a tongue tie has never experienced the breastfeeding issues they can cause.”

What is tongue tie?

Tongue tie is when a baby’s tongue movement is restricted by the thin piece of skin under the baby’s tongue. It can make it difficult for a baby to latch properly and can cause mastitis because they aren’t able to drain the breasts.

Mums who suspect their little one is having trouble feeding need to see a lactation consultant for a diagnosis.

How to correct a tongue tie

A relatively simple procedure for newborns can fix the issue, which involves a painless snip of the skin under the tongue.

“There is no need for this to be done in an expensive and complicated way if it is done under a month of age. If it’s done by an appropriately trained paediatrician, surgeon or sometimes clinical nurse specialist. The procedure takes literally less than 30 seconds and is done with sucrose (which is a sugar solution) for comfort.” General Paediatrician, Dr Sarah Jame, told Mum’s Grapevine.

“It is just cutting the non-fleshy ligamentous part, which is very simple. It doesn’t cause bleeding, it doesn’t cause infection, it doesn’t cause excessive pain and it doesn’t require any post exercises and the baby can feed immediately afterwards.”

Other forms of ligation

Dr Jame also explained that there are instances where other ligation procedures do cause distress and issues for babies. “There is a big industry of inappropriate ligation of things called posterior tongue ties, lip ties, frenulum ties, all of which do not need to be ligated.” She says these ligations are sometimes performed under general anaesthetic, which is an additional risk, and have a higher risk of bleeding or infection. They can be painful and distressing and can be detrimental to feeding by creating negative associations of pain for babies with feeding.

Her advice is to consult a professional within the first month of a baby’s life if you’re concerned your little one has tongue tie.

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