There has been a lot of discussion among the medical community about the impact of tongue and lip restrictions on breastfeeding and oral health in general. Over my now almost 50-year career of nursing and lactation support, this discussion has grown from a “no big deal, just fix it” question to an “it’s an imagined problem” to where things stand now – with camps saying it’s overdiagnosed to camps saying that it’s underdiagnosed and undertreated. There are many social media groups for both moms and professionals discussing the issue and in some cases, strong battle lines are drawn. Here is my opinion.
Personally, I have had two children with restricted lingual frenulums. One received a revision at 5 days by the old GP that delivered her. The other delivered many years later, was not diagnosed and was not treated. I nursed them both, the first for 10.5 months (in a day when everyone bottle-fed) and the second 3.5 years. Both had dental issues later in life. That’s my personal experience and occurred before I was a board certified lactation consultant. My experience says that with a genetic capacity for excellent milk supply and determination, breastfeeding can happen for some moms with babies with oral restrictions, but sometimes it can’t. There was no Facebook back then with thousands of mothers looking for support that they can’t find in their local medical community. I survived. Does that make it ok to not treat oral restrictions?
Professionally, over the course of my career, I have helped thousands and thousands of women breastfeed. Some of the most difficult cases have been with babies with oral restrictions. And many of these have additional difficulties to overcome, some as secondary issue caused by the oral restrictions, some separate but equally challenging issues. Below are some of my conclusions.
Oral restrictions affect muscles in the body. Babies use their whole bodies to breastfeed. Sucking is the mechanism by which babies get nutrition, comfort and explore their world. When that is disturbed by difficulties of attachment due to weakness or inability to move the tongue (which is another muscle), their world is turned upside down. Compassion and understanding go a long way to increasing patience with a baby who doesn’t understand and who is biologically driven to nurse. All babies want to nurse, but oral restrictions impeded their ability to do with ease.
First, it is important to note that muscle tension can affect tongue effectiveness, giving an appearance of restriction. That is why it is important to have an experienced diagnostician who can distinguish between a mechanical restriction (like a tongue-tie) versus muscles in tension preventing movement and range of motion. Proper diagnosis is the first key to dealing with inhibited tongue function.
Next, if a mechanical restriction is diagnosed, an experienced and knowledgeable provider is the second key in improving function. The provider must know how to do a complete release and be able to show the parents what that looks like when it is accomplished, and give proper guidance for post-revision care. In some babies, there are benefits to doing pre-release physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc. if baby is showing signs of compensation that can be helped even before release is done.
The third key is effective and consistent after care done once the baby’s restrictions is released. Babies who can’t suck effectively, often develop muscle tension in other places than the tongue as they try to compensate for poor tongue function. This can result in lots of tension, pulling away from the breast, biting, etc. Some babies will develop or may have accompanying torticollis, high body tone, etc. Body work, physical therapy, effective and frequent tummy time, baby-wearing, and skin to skin care can help calm and relax a baby. This must be done in a pattern that is effective and rewarding for baby. Some babies need care from a speech language therapist. If baby is being supplemented, the choice of supplementation device may change as baby improves. See my post for more information on the impact of devices on breastfeeding competency. Protect your milk supply while working on any latch issues as supply is driven by the degree and frequency of emptying the breast. See the link above for more information on that as well.
A lactation consultant should reevaluate baby after a release because latch techniques may need adjustments once baby has full range of motion of the tongue. It takes time to work through and retrain baby to latch comfortably and effectively. Most moms report it takes 2-4 weeks. Follow-up assessment during this time is important to make sure healing is progressing and function is improving. The IBCLC can further refer to body workers, speech therapy, physical therapy as needed.
Above all, when taking the journey through breastfeeding difficulties, including oral restrictions, remember that the breast is and should be not a battle ground but a sanctuary for babies. Keep baby close and comfortable (that’s skin to skin care). Keep baby at the breast, even if you have to supplement away from the breast. Breastfeeding can be an after meal snack even if your supply is low. Your journey may not be easy, but your bond can be strong as you work through challenges.