Many of us have heard the expression “tongue tied,” but do you really know what it means? A tongue tie is where the string of tissue that connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth is too short or too tight, restricting the movement of the tongue.
Tongue ties are common, affecting anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of all newborns. It is three times more common among boys than girls and frequently runs in families, says Dr. Joshua Bullock, a Board-Certified Pediatric Dentist at the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas’ SEK Smiles program.
Uncorrected, it can create a range of symptoms across a person’s lifespan which can have a major impact on their well-being including nursing, transition to solid foods, speech, sleep and airway issues.
Dr. Bullock, who also serves as Associate Director of the CHC/SEK/-NYU Langone Pediatric Dental Residency program, recently completed advanced training in the treatment of tongue tie and has been sharing his expertise with the pediatric dental residents.
“For me, this course was life changing,” Dr. Bullock said. “And for the moms and dads of the tongue-tied babies who I have been treating I can say definitively that it is life changing for them as well. Our dental residents have been learning and implementing this and I know it will greatly improve their careers and they will change the lives of their patients wherever they go.”
Tongue-tie can be difficult to diagnose during a physical exam in infancy, and the first indication may be noticed when there is difficulty nursing. For infants, the doctor might use a screening tool to score various aspects of the tongue’s appearance and ability to move.
At birth, a baby born with a tongue tie can have problems with breastfeeding, as they cannot suck and swallow correctly. These problems may also persist when switching to bottle feeding. Infants and toddlers identified as “picky eaters” may be experiencing issues with swallowing leading to choking, gagging and stomach reflux issues.
A common sign of tongue tie in young children eighteen months to three years is delayed speech and frequent infections of the sinuses and ears. In babies with tongue tie, for example, you can see stuffy breathing, ear infections, and goopy eyes.
When a child’s airway is restricted due to a tongue tie, they often start to breathe through their mouth instead. This abnormal breathing pattern puts a lot of stress on the tonsils and adenoids to clear and warm the air, enlarging them and further blocking the airway and making breathing even more difficult and leading to sleep issues. A lack of quality sleep for a child can lead to ADHD-like symptoms such as hyperactivity, difficulties focusing, and a short attention span.
“You know, it has been said, you should breathe through your mouth as often as you eat through your nose,” Bullock says.
Some undiagnosed tongue-tied adults compensate for many of these problems as a child and can function well. However, treating the cause of these issues has far better long-term outcomes than compensation does. With age, and decreased physical fitness, problems can arise including slurring words, stuttering, jaw or neck pain, headaches, chronic sinusitis, reflux, cavities, and sleep issues.
Surgical treatment of tongue-tie may be needed for infants, children, or adults if tongue-tie causes problems. The good news is that treatment of tongue tie condition is considered a minimally invasive procedure and, in most cases, does not require a hospital visit, and yields a lifetime of benefits.
If you are concerned that you, your baby or child might have a tongue tie, talk to your dentist, or call SEK Smiles at 888-204-0505 and we can advise you further, Dr. Bullock says.