What is a tongue-tie? What parents need to know

Baby with thick, dark hair lying on tummy looking at camera with hands touching, head raised, and tongue out slightly

The tongue is secured to the front of the mouth partly by a band of tissue called the lingual frenulum. If the frenulum is short, it can restrict the movement of the tongue. This is commonly called a tongue-tie.

Children with a tongue-tie can’t stick their tongue out past their lower lip, or touch their tongue to the top of their upper teeth when their mouth is open. When they stick out their tongue, it looks notched or heart-shaped. Since babies don’t routinely stick out their tongues, a baby’s tongue may be tied if you can’t get a finger underneath the tongue.

How common are tongue-ties?

Tongue-ties are common. It’s hard to say exactly how common, as people define this condition differently. About 8% of babies under age one may have at least a mild tongue-tie.

Is it a problem if the tongue is tied?

This is really important: tongue-ties are not necessarily a problem. Many babies, children, and adults have tongue-ties that cause them no difficulties whatsoever.

There are two main ways that tongue-ties can cause problems:

  • They can cause problems with breastfeeding by making it hard for some babies to latch on well to the mother’s nipple. This causes difficulty with feeding for the baby and sore nipples for the mother. It doesn’t happen to all babies with a tongue-tie; many of them can breastfeed successfully. Tongue-ties are not to blame for gassiness or fussiness in a breastfed baby who is gaining weight well. Babies with tongue-ties do not have problems with bottle-feeding.
  • They can cause problems with speech. Some children with tongue-ties may have difficulty pronouncing certain sounds, such as t, d, z, s, th, n, and l. Tongue-ties do not cause speech delay.

What should you do if think your baby or child has a tongue-tie?

If you think that your newborn is not latching well because of a tongue-tie, talk to your doctor. There are many, many reasons why a baby might not latch onto the breast well. Your doctor should take a careful history of what has been going on, and do a careful examination of your baby to better understand the situation.

You should also have a visit with a lactation specialist to get help with breastfeeding — both because there are lots of reasons why babies have trouble with latching on, and also because many babies with a tongue-tie can nurse successfully with the right techniques and support.

Talk to your doctor if you think that a tongue-tie could be causing problems with how your child pronounces words. Many children just take some time to learn to pronounce certain sounds. It is also a good idea to have an evaluation by a speech therapist before concluding that a tongue-tie is the problem.

What can be done about a tongue-tie?

When necessary, a doctor can release a tongue-tie using a procedure called a frenotomy. A frenotomy can be done by simply snipping the frenulum, or it can be done with a laser.

However, nothing should be done about a tongue-tie that isn’t causing problems. While a frenotomy is a relatively minor procedure, complications such as bleeding, infection, or feeding difficulty sometimes occur. So it’s never a good idea to do it just to prevent problems in the future. The procedure should only be considered if the tongue-tie is clearly causing trouble.

It’s also important to know that clipping a tongue-tie doesn’t always solve the problem, especially with breastfeeding. Studies do not show a clear benefit for all babies or mothers. That’s why it’s important to work with a lactation expert before even considering a frenotomy.

If a newborn with a tongue-tie isn’t latching well despite strong support from a lactation expert, then a frenotomy should be considered, especially if the baby is not gaining weight. If it is done, it should be done early on and by someone with training and experience in the procedure.

What else should parents know about tongue-tie procedures?

Despite the fact that the evidence for the benefits of frenotomy is murky, many providers are quick to recommend them. If one is being recommended for your child, ask questions:

  • Make sure you know exactly why it is being recommended.
  • Ask whether there are any other options, including waiting.
  • Talk to other health care providers on your child’s care team, or get a second opinion.

About the Author

photo of Claire McCarthy, MD

Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD

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