What is Tongue Tie? Treatment, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Problems

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Although the phrase “tongue tied” is often used when you stumble over your words, it's also a medical condition that affects up to one in ten babies born in the UK. It's a worrying time when you're told there is problem with your baby's mouth or teeth, but rest assured a tongue tie is treatable and shouldn't cause lasting effects.

tongue tie babies adults
Find answers about tongue tie in babies and adults

Here, we'll go through everything you need to know about having a tongue tied baby, such as:

  • How tongue tie is diagnosed
  • Tongue tie symptoms
  • The difficulties your child might face
  • Different treatments that are available
  • The effects of tongue tie in adults

There are differing opinions in the medical profession about tongue tie treatments, but the information here will help you to have a full conversation with your doctor about the right course of action for your baby.

What is tongue tie in babies?

A tongue tie happens when the frenulum linguae – that's the little bit of flesh that between your tongue and the floor of the mouth – is shorter, tighter or further forward than normal. You might also hear your doctor refer to the condition by its medical name, ankyloglossia. There are two types of tongue tie, posterior and anterior, which we'll talk about in a moment.

tied tongue procedure
A doctor or dentist can check for tongue tie problems

Present from being newborn, tongue tie is a congenital issue. The exact cause is not understood, but studies have shown it happens two and a half times more often in boys than girls.

Some of the most common problems that arise due to ankyloglossia include:

  • Problems breastfeeding
  • Possible speech problems
  • Higher risk of tooth decay and gum disease
  • Difficulty swallowing food
  • A gap between the bottom front teeth, when they erupt

Not everyone with a tongue tie will develop these problems. A doctor may or may not recommend surgical treatment, depending on the severity of the issue.

Posterior tongue tie

With a tongue tie posterior in the mouth, the tongue is attached further back, behind the normal flesh. It's not so easy to see this type of tie because it's further back in the mouth and obscured. In one study of babies with problems breastfeeding, 20% had a posterior tongue tie.

Anterior tongue tie

This type of tongue tie is usually easy to see when looking at your baby's mouth. It'll look like a thick string of flesh that is holding the tongue to the floor of the mouth.

How to tell if my baby is tongue tied?

If there's an anterior tongue tie, this can be spotted very early on, sometimes even during initial health checks. A baby may have trouble moving their tongue, or it may appear heart-shaped when sticking out of their mouth, as pictured.

tongue tie picture child
This child's tongue tie is restricting his tongue

A posterior tongue tie can be harder to spot straight away. Things to look out for include:

  • Difficulties latching on during breastfeeding
  • Not wanting to take a bottle
  • Slow or no weight gain
  • Constant hunger
  • Clicking from the mouth whilst feeding

A breastfeeding mother might also experience soreness or even sharp pain in the breast at feeding times. This is because the baby's tongue is too short to cover the lower gums when feeding.

If you spot these issues, you can talk to your health visitor, midwife, or doctor and they can do a full assessment. They will be able to go through some simple tests that won't hurt your baby, like placing a finger in the mouth and touching their lower lip to see how much tongue movement there is. The person doing the assessment will also want to watch your baby breastfeeding or taking a bottle.

Tongue tie: bottle feeding vs breastfeeding

A lot of the focus of tongue tie is on breastfeeding, however it can still affect bottle-feeding babies too. When breastfeeding, babies use the tip of their tongue more than with a bottle, so the problem can be more pronounced. However, with a tongue tie, baby can have restricted movement in the middle of their tongue which still presents a problem with bottles.

If you have any concerns at all about feeding your baby, be sure to discuss it with your healthcare professional. They can assess baby's tongue movement and help you decide if treatment is needed.

Tongue tie treatment options

If your baby isn't having any difficulty feeding, tongue tie medical procedures may not be necessary. Healthy weight gain and successful feeding at the breast or bottle means that, at least for now, they are doing fine. However, when feeding causes breast pain and your baby isn't getting enough milk, intervention is likely necessary.

Tongue tie surgery

A frenotomy is a relatively simple procedure that can be done in a doctor's office, and some practitioners even offer it as a home treatment. Your doctor will use a pair of sterile scissors to cut the lingual frenulum so that the tongue becomes more mobile.

There aren't many nerves or much blood supply in this part of the mouth, so anaesthetic often isn't needed. A little bleeding is normal, but there shouldn't be a need for stitches and your baby should be able to feed normally straight away.

The video below shows how simple this procedure is when carried out on a 10-week-old infant:

You should see their feeding and weight improve pretty quickly. In one study, 92% of babies were able to successfully breastfeed following a simple frenotomy in a doctor's office.

Another type of procedure is a frenuplasty. This type of procedure is usually done under general anaesthetic and the outcome is pretty much the same, although a frenuplasty may give your child better outcomes for overall tongue movement. Here's a table comparing the two types of surgery:

Frenotomy Frenuplasty
Where Can be done in a doctor’s office or at home In an operating theatre
How Sterile scissors are used to cut the frenulum Surgical equipment is used to cut the frenulum and the tongue is stitched up
Numbing procedure Not strictly necessary but local anaesthetic is possible General anaesthetic
Possible complications Excess bleeding, infection, damage to saliva glands Excess bleeding, infection, damage to saliva glands
Effective to relieve feeding complications Yes Yes
Effective for speech issues Can help increase tongue movement Significantly increases tongue movement and can help improve speech

Tongue tie surgery cost

after tongue tie surgery
Surgery involves cutting the membrane under the tongue

When there is a medical need, you can seek treatment for tongue tie on the NHS. For babies, a midwife, doctor, or lactation consultant will be able to help you organise a tongue tie division if it's needed. Tongue tie in toddlers and adults can also be treated for free on the NHS if it is causing health problems.

You may choose to seek a tongue division procedure from a private tongue tie clinic. There are lots across the UK and the Association of Tongue Tie Practitioners have a database of all NHS and private sites. The cost of a tongue tie procedure is usually between £200 and £300 for babies.

Speech therapy

There isn't much agreement about whether being tongue tied will affect speech. Some doctors say that if the frenulum is restricting the movement of the tongue, then some sounds are harder to make. However there are other doctors that disagree with this.

If the child is feeding normally, it may be best to wait and see if speech issues develop before seeking treatment. Around the age of three or four you can ask for an assessment by a speech therapist to see if any problems might arise in the long term.

There haven't been any big studies done about the effectiveness of speech therapy techniques. If tongue tie is identified as the cause of problems pronouncing certain sounds, your child will be referred for a tongue tie division rather than a course of therapy.

Being tongue tied as a teen or adult

Even if you've made it through your childhood without many problems, you may still want to seek tongue tie treatment as an adult. Some issues that may come from ankyloglossia as an adult include:

  • Speech issues
  • Jaw pain
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Mental health issues
  • Increased tooth decay
  • Crooked lower teeth
  • Gum disease

You might be a little embarrassed by some of these things. If your life is being negatively affected by your tongue tie then visit your doctor to explore treatment options.

A dentist may also be able to refer you for treatment if they think your tongue tie is affecting your teeth. Your tongue plays a vital part in your oral health by sweeping away food debris as you're eating. When your tongue can't reach your upper or side teeth, this could leave food sitting on your teeth for longer, increasing the chances of tooth decay and gum disease.

Because your tongue sits behind your lower teeth most of the time, it can mean you develop a gap between them. Fixing a gap between teeth is normally done with braces, but the problem could return if you don't get your tongue tie released too.

Here, Olivia talks about her experience getting her tongue tie released as an adult, including some before and after pictures:

Frequently Asked Questions

Will a tongue tie improve without treatment?

Tongue ties can go away on their own; in studies on different age groups, ankyloglossia was less common in children than in babies. It's possible that the extra skin tying down the tongue gets worn away when feeding or when your child puts toys in their mouth.

My doctor won't release my child's tongue tie, what can I do?

Because there is a debate about whether a tied tongue is a big problem, some doctors will be reluctant to intervene. When breastfeeding is difficult or painful, you should be able to get your baby treated swiftly. You can always seek a second opinion from a different doctor or practice, and there are private clinics that will do a frenotomy, too.

Breastfeeding is painful but I don't my baby to have surgery. Can I switch to bottle feeding?

tongue tie bottle feeding
Switching to a bottle may help, but not always

Changing from breast to bottle feeding is a big decision which a lactation consultant or midwife can advise you on. It's possible your baby will still experience problems with taking a bottle, in which case the procedure will still be necessary.

I have gaps in my teeth because of a tied tongue, can I get NHS braces?

Orthodontic treatment is free up until the age of 18 as long as there is a real need for treatment. You won't automatically qualify for braces on the NHS if you've got a tied tongue and are over 18. The NHS offers orthodontic treatment based on medical need, so your orthodontist will asses the gaps in your teeth and tell you if you're eligible for NHS prices or will need to pay privately.

Read more about options for treating gaps in teeth.

Conclusion

The problems caused by a tongue tie can range from extremely painful breastfeeding and a baby failing to thrive, to absolutely no issues at all except an attached frenulum. Between these two extremes, dental problems speech issues may occur. Treatment can be a bit of a contentious issue between doctors, but if it's affecting the health of you or your baby, you should have no trouble receiving appropriate treatment.

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Contributors:
Amanda Napitu
Amanda Napitu
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Amanda specialises in writing informative content about dentistry. She has been a regular contributor to Dentaly.org since 2017.
Sources
NHS: Tongue-tie. Consulted 15th January 2020. ATP: Tongue-tie Information. Consulted 15th January 2020. NCBI: The effects of office-based frenotomy for anterior and posterior ankyloglossia on breastfeeding. Consulted 15th January 2020. Speech Pathology Graduate Programs: Ankyloglossia and the SLP: A Look at Both Sides of the Frenectomy Debate. Consulted 15th January 2020.
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