‘Tongue-tied’ may be a common phrase in the English language but it has roots in a medical condition that is still being treated by doctors in Birmingham.
Health Correspondent Alison Dayani meets a couple whose baby was born with the condition.
Parents Nicola Wright and Simon Flint were lost for words when they found out their newborn baby was literally tongue-tied.
Tiny Austin Flint was perfect in every way, except an extra piece of tissue anchoring the tip of his tongue to the floor of the mouth, preventing him from sticking out his tongue, being able to easily breastfeed and potential speech problems in the future.
But due to the efforts of consultant paediatric surgeons Charles Hendrickse and Douglas Bowley, Austin was able to have his tongue corrected within two weeks of birth at Good Hope Hospital, in Sutton Coldfield.
He was one of around 40 babies from across the country who are treated by the doctors at Good Hope and Heartlands hospitals every year as many other trusts will not carry out the ten-minute procedure to cut the tissue and free the tongue.
Decades ago, it was routine for midwives to quickly cut the tongue with a nail if they noticed it was tied after birth, but stricter health and safety rules eradicated that practice even though as many as one in ten babies may be born with tongue-tie.
“It’s not an abnormality, just one of those things some children are born with,” said Mr Bowley. “It used to be convention for midwives to divide the tongue, but that became frowned upon as not a real medical procedure but a cultural practice like circumcision, so it fell out of favour.”
That situation has a recent turnaround with international charity UNICEF and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) supporting the procedure to to boost breast-feeding as the problem prevents babies from attaching properly to the breast.
The consultant explained that a trial in Southampton had now found that tongue-tied babies were unable to breastfeed, with a 95 per cent improvement in newborns that had the tongue cut to untie it.
He added that being tongue-tied often led to speech problems too and work with a therapist when the child reached school age.
“We listened to what our patients and midwives were saying and decided to start a tongue-tie division,” added Mr Hendrickse.
“We now get parents travelling from as far as south Wales for us to treat their baby. There is strong evidence to support this procedure.”
One in ten babies sleep through the whole thing as the tissue is still a thin membrane with no nerve endings at such a young age.
Although Austin stayed awake, he was content enough to suckle at his mother’s breast within minutes of it being over.
Mother Nicola, a 22-year-old midwife at Walsgrave Hospital, in Coventry, said: “It immediately made a noticeable difference. Austin could suddenly stick out his tongue and breastfeed happily. It was amazing to see. I was having to breastfeed for four to five hours every night as most of the milk was spilling out of his mouth.
“I kept trying because I am a midwife and know how important it is for babies to have breast milk.”
It was during an examination after Austin’s birth at Good Hope on June 22, that a midwife picked up on the problem and then passed the information on to the tongue-tie team.
Two weeks later, Nicola and Simon, from Glascote, in Tamworth, were back in hospital for an outpatients appointment to have Austin’s tongue divided.
Father Simon Flint, a 27-year-old mechanic at Tyre World, in Tamworth, said: “I found it really daunting and was very worried for Austin.
“After he had been diagnosed, I went to see my family and my mother said she had been tongue-tied as a baby as well and I never knew.”
Babies up to 16 weeks can have their tongue tied with sharp sterile scissors without an anaesthetic, but after that age, when infants are more aware of their surroundings, medics need to use an anaesthetic in a more drawn out procedure.
Midwife Jackie Scott, infant feeding coordinator at Good Hope, is part of a team that checks newborns for tongue-tie and said she believes many more people suffer with the condition than is documented.
“I come across adults all the time and can tell they have a tongue-tie as they cannot stick their tongue out or move it around their mouth properly.” said Mrs Scott. “Sometimes it is two years down the line when a child isn’t speaking properly and is referred to a speech therapist that it is picked up.”