When you first discover that your little bean has a heart-shaped tongue, it can either be devastating or joyful. For me, I experienced so much happiness that my daughter has something that is uniquely her own I felt I could burst. I thought it was adorable. Then I found out what tongue-tie could mean for her.
Tongue-tie is a condition in which the small piece of skin that roots your tongue to the bottom of your mouth is too short or attached too far forward near your teeth. Tongue-tied babies experience a range of difficulties including inability to eat properly or enough, chewing issues later in life, and speech issues – my husband’s worst fear for our daughter.
That “What if..?” might bounce around in your head like a yo-yo gone crazy. But if you love your little one’s heart-shaped tongue as much as I did, and it’s not severe, you can bat that yo-yo right out the window. Well, maybe just to the floor.
Your pediatrician may recommend a frenectomy, an optional surgery to snip a bit of that excessive skin so your baby will experience no difficulties at all. Babies with tongue-tie often have the most difficulty eating . This is because their tongue prevents them from latching correctly and they have to work harder in order to express enough milk to feel satisfied.
But if your little one is gaining and growing well, there are some things you need to know if you don’t want him/her to lose that heart-shape. This information will enable your child to keep that pretty little tongue and thrive.
1. Patience is a Virtue
This plays a key role mostly through the first few months. After that, your baby will have learned how to work her mouth better and the initial phase of feeding trouble will lessen. But for now, accept that everything involving her tongue will take a long time. Hurrying her will only make you more frustrated and in turn, affect her mood. I always let my daughter lead the pace and sometimes that meant helping her latch and letting her eat for an hour or more at a time.
2. Being Involved
Some mothers and babies can breastfeed almost hands-free. A tongue-tied baby may need help latching and stimulation in order to keep her eating. If she is having trouble latching, sandwiching your nipple and guiding it into her mouth will help her get hold of it. I had to do this a lot because my daughter was impatient and if by the third or fourth try she hadn’t succeeded, she’d get angry and stop trying. She also would drift off to sleep and I would have to tickle her toes or poke her side gently to rouse her.
3. Finding the Right Position
Not all tongue-tied babies will have issues with positions, but mine did. We experimented a lot until we found one that made feeding much easier for her. Lying on my side allowed better alignment for us both and kept my arms from cramping up from holding her for so long. So you must be prepared for that anytime you go anywhere. I have had to lay down in backseats, other people’s beds, and leave public places in order to feed her because it just wasn’t possible for her to eat with me sitting.
4. Don’t Stress the Mess
The one thing I never heard in all my unsolicited advice was just how messy breastfeeding was. Tongue tie played a major part of the mess because she couldn’t hold as much milk in her mouth, so much of it would dribble from the side of her lips and pool underneath her head. Doubled with overactive letdown, it was a milk parade! Don’t let that scare you or bother you, though. There are lots of ways to combat the puddles and sprinklers such as puppy pads (I stopped using them because of their gel filling), layers of towels, receiving blankets, and waterproof liners.
5. Choking and Gagging
This is a common issue for tongue-tied babies whether our breastfeeding or not. Because their tongue prevents them from reflexively swallowing at the right time, these babies tend to aspirate their liquids, causing them to choke. You have to keep yourself from freaking out when this happens! Just pat him/her on the back and lean them upwards – they will cough, sputter, and recover from it. It may scare him so you will want to soothe him and when he is calm, re-present your nipple.
6. Inform Your Caregivers
Because of the difficulties, and the occasional gag, caregivers MUST be aware of the condition and be told how to handle certain tasks. A babysitter who freaked out ’cause she caused your baby to choke isn’t going to help your baby and the sitter won’t feel any better until you come home and explain to her that it’s normal. I wrote out the things my sitter needed to be aware of, such as longer feeding, how to handle the mess, and what to do if she starts gagging.
7. Nipple Trauma
This sounds a lot scarier than it truly is. If not directly caused by the friction against your little one’s tongue, then it will happen due to the sheer amount of hours a day there is pressure and suction on it. Lansinoh cream helped me immensely during the period of time that she wanted to nurse 45 minutes out of every hour of the day. But for the most part, it’s tolerable if you can accept the fact that it will happen instead of fearing it.
For me, this is the only factor hanging in the balance. There’s no way to tell if your baby will have speech problems just yet. As I said earlier, though, it involves the tongue so it may take longer for her to make different sounds. My daughter is lagging behind by a few weeks in this regard – though I can’t guarantee that it’s due to her tongue-tie, since all babies develop at a different rate. My plan for the future, if she does have issues, is to dedicate myself to working with her. For now, I talk to her a lot, mimic her sounds, and introduce new small words such as ‘cup.’ It’s a good idea to do this, whether or not your baby has tongue-tie, because it is how they learn speech patterns and harder letter sounds such as consonants, which often involve the tongue.
Making the decision to breastfeed a tongue-tied baby is a monumental one, and I applaud you because it takes such strength and dedication. The road ahead is rough and fraught with battles – mainly because your priorities will take on a whole different meaning when it’s a choice between cooking a 2-hour meal or a 15-minute one because your peanut needs to eat.
The biggest message I can possibly send out here is that it IS possible, and is nothing to fear. It’s still an amazing journey everyday and our bond is even stronger because of all our time and interaction together. And you can have it too.
If you are facing this issue and the debate whether or not to breastfeed or snip, think about the possibility of him/her sticking their tongue out at you ten years from now and seeing what you’ve worked so hard to keep. You might just smile in spite of yourself.