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Feature Article Tongue Tie May Contribute to Common Breastfeeding Problems

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For new mothers, breastfeeding can often be a tricky and uncomfortable skill to master. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for 6 months, and although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 92 percent of Oregon women start out breastfeeding, less than 30 percent are still exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months. 

Of the many reasons women cite for stopping breastfeeding, those reported in the AAP’s journal Pediatrics include concerns about having enough milk for baby, nutrition and pain. A condition called tongue tie can contribute to all three of those concerns.

Anterior tongue tie — where the frenulum, the tissue that connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth, is too short and tight — restricts the tongue’s movement. A study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine estimates less than 5 percent of infants have tongue tie. As recognition of the problem grows, the numbers could be much higher. For mothers who have an infant with tongue tie, treatment or support can mean the difference between breastfeeding success and failure. 

“Tongue tie is something we’re seeing more of at the lactation clinics and breastfeeding support groups,” said Debbie Alba, a lactation consultant and nurse at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. “When a baby has tongue tie, sometimes they can’t move their tongues as effectively, which can lead to not eating as much and may cause nipple pain and decreased milk supply for the mother.”

If a mother suspects tongue tie, a pediatrician or lactation consultant can diagnose the condition.

“There are lots of things we can do to help a mother and baby who are having trouble breastfeeding due to tongue tie,” said Alba. “We want to look at non-invasive treatment options first like adjusting latch and positioning, which have a great success rate. We can also use massage and osteopathic manipulation and even occupational therapy to help address breastfeeding issues. There are a several options and many breastfeeding issues can be solved using treatments that are gentle for both mom and baby.”

Relatively new as a treatment for breastfeeding issues, Samaritan offers a free osteo manipulation therapy (OMT) clinic for babies. At the clinic, a physician gently treats the baby’s head and neck to help ensure proper positioning is possible during breastfeeding, and to loosen any neck or jaw tension.

For babies with severe tongue tie or who haven’t been successful with other treatments, a procedure called a frenectomy, where the frenulum is snipped, can be done in the doctor’s office. 

Breastfeeding success can be tied to mother and baby health, and even has an economic impact. Pediatrics published a study showing that if 90 percent of families followed breastfeeding medical recommendations to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months, the U. S. could save $13 billion per year and prevent more than 911 deaths, most of which would be infants. 

“Parents can feel stressed when a baby isn’t feeding well, but the best thing to do is get help and then take it one day at a time,” said Alba. “Every baby is different. Once the baby is evaluated, we can give parents the treatment options and then let them decide what works best for them. The most important thing is to ask for help if you need it.”

If you have questions, please call 541-768-5244 (Corvallis), 541-812-5116 (Albany), 541-451-7588 (Lebanon) or 541-996-7179 (Lincoln City).

Having trouble with breastfeeding? Sign up for a support group or take a class.