“Mr. and Mrs. Stansberry, you have a tongue-tied baby.” I stared back, thinking I must be suffering from the same condition. “Tongue-tied” wasn’t a term I had ever heard associated with babies before. I typically thought of it as a way to describe someone (as dictionary.com puts it) who is “too shy or embarrassed to speak.” But certainly, the doctor must be talking about a medical condition and not my newborn daughter’s reserved demeanor.
“What does that mean?” I asked the doctor. She explained that with tongue-tie (ankyloglossia), an unusually tight band of tissue tethers the bottom of the tongue to the floor of the mouth, restricting the tongue's range of motion. This can affect the child’s eating, speaking, and swallowing, as well as make it difficult for the child to breastfeed successfully. I was planning to breastfeed, so this was bad news.
The doctor explained that we could have it surgically corrected with something called a frenotomy, but it was a mild tongue-tie, and she thought surgery wasn’t necessary. I was relieved, as the thought of cutting my baby’s tongue at two days old made me woozy.
As soon I got home from the hospital, I did my own frantic-web-stalking research. How many babies have tongue-tie, I wondered? I found that tongue-tie occurs in 4 to 10 percent of babies and tends to be more common in males. That was certainly a higher prevalence than I thought it would be.
Next, I researched the effects of tongue-tie on my ability to breastfeed. I found that mothers breastfeeding tongue-tied babies have more nipple pain than mothers feeding normal infants. With normal babies, this nipple pain is temporary, typically peaks on the third day, and resolves itself within about two weeks, whereas with tongue-tied babies, the prevalence of persistent nipple pain in breastfeeding women is between 36% and 80%. Ouch.
I also found that there are considerable latch problems with tongue-tied babies. Only 3% of mothers of normal infants have difficulty getting their babies to latch at 6 weeks, but 25% of mothers of tongue-tied babies still have this problem.
On a positive note, I found other research that mothers of infants with mild to moderate tongue-tie had a strong likelihood of breastfeeding successfully, with no treatment required. I also learned the frenulum can actually stretch out over time, allowing the tongue to function normally. So, I was feeling a little better about life.
Getting down to breastfeeding business
For the first few weeks, breastfeeding was painful, but I was expecting that – not just because of my research on tongue-tie, but also because I knew from family and friends that it would take time for my nipples to “toughen up.” I went to my daughter’s 4-week well check, and when our pediatrician asked how breastfeeding was going, I told her it was still really painful. She had also breastfed a tongue-tied baby, so she assured me that was normal.
It was probably around eight weeks when I finally started to adjust and experience not as much discomfort when nursing. I’ll spare you some of the gory details of my breastfeeding and nipple pain and will skip to the good part – how I got through it.
My top 3 tips for saving your sore nipples when breastfeeding a tongue-tied baby:
1. Get the deepest latch you can. The nipple pain from breastfeeding a tongue-tied baby is typically caused by the baby’s latch being too shallow, so try to correct this yourself as much as you can. If this means squashing the tip of your breast so it’s the perfect size to shove deep into your baby’s little mouth, so be it.
2. Nurse your nipples in between nursing sessions. Your nipples WILL be sore – you won’t be able to avoid it. But what you can do is allow them to heal when you’re not nursing. I applied Lansinoh nipple cream morning, noon and night for months on end. Or you could try the breast shells that protect your chaffed nipples from clothing. Or walk around with your top off so your nipples can get some air and heal (not kidding).
3. Consider trying a nipple shield. I didn’t realize this was an option for tongue-tied babies until well after I was done breastfeeding my first daughter, but nipple shields are actually a good tool for mothers with tongue-tied babies. They protect your sore nipples while nursing, and the baby may be able to latch on to them better.
As we all know, no two babies are the same, and this was simply my experience breastfeeding an infant with mild tongue-tie. It was difficult – and painful in the beginning – but we survived for an entire year, and knowing what to expect along the way, as well as knowing there were lots of other mothers out there dealing with the same thing, was comforting to me. May you find some comfort knowing you are not alone, and may the support you get from others leave you – as it did for me – speechless.
About Katie Stansberry
Katie Stansberry is a work-from-home mom of two sweet girls and the creator of Breastfeeding Bliss. After struggling at the beginning of her breastfeeding journey, she wanted to create a happy place where breastfeeding moms could find practical tips, positive inspiration, and the newest and best breastfeeding products. On her "Back to Bliss" breastfeeding blog, she shares her personal stories and tips for making breastfeeding an easier and more enjoyable experience.