Pregnancy & Birth

Baby tongue-tie surgery: Necessary or barbaric?

Some people are calling it the wild west of medicine… others say it’s a simple solution. Who's right?

By Rebel Wylie
Problems with breastfeeding cause major distress for both baby and mum, so when Australian mums are being told that the cause may fixable with tongue-tie surgery, is it any wonder that more and more are looking at what is promised to be a simple solution?
For Eliza Seward the "simple solution" turned out to be a horrific experience, causing her to breakdown years later at the idea that it simply wasn't the right thing to do.
Describing the "blood curdling" screams of her daughter Greta, Eliza is uncertain the medical advice she and her husband, received regarding breastfeeding issues was sound, and she's not alone in that line of thinking.
The benefits of tongue tie surgery divides experts and parents alike. While many sing the praises post-surgery, there are those who are calling it are calling it the wild west of medicine.
Eliza Seward and daughter Greta, had a horrible experience with tongue tie surgery. (Image: Supplied/SBS)
While the debate rages about the safety of the surgery, the popularity of the procedure is rising, 420 percent in the last decade to be exact. So is it necessary, or simply barbaric?
A study on tongue-tie in Australian children released last year warned that rate could increase even more in the next few years and "lead us to question whether this surgical management approach is supported by sufficient evidence".
WATCH: Eliza Seward describes the "blood curdling" screams of baby Greta. Continues after video ...

What is tongue tie surgery?

Tongue-tie surgery, aka a frenotomy, is when part of the frenulum on a baby - the string like membrane under the tongue – is either cut or lasered to release a tongue tie.
Tongue tie (ankyloglossia) is when the lingual frenulum, the string like membrane under the tongue, is short and reduces movement of the tongue. The two main concerns of tongue tie are the impact on breastfeeding and potential speech problems.
While a baby with tongue tie can generally feed successfully, what often occurs is a poor latch which can lead to low weight gain, nipple damage, mastitis (due to breast not draining) and baby being unsettled. However, tongue tie is not the only cause of those issues, and therein lies the debate.
A recent episode of The Feed on SBS, sees Marc Fennel delve deep into the tongue tie surgery issue from all angles.
He explains that the procedure's rise in popularity might just be thanks to social influencers like Debbie Jay who became one of the first to be vocal in Australia, recommending medical professionals who fix tongue-tie after finding success with daughter, Sophie.
"I didn't want other mums to go through what I had gone through," Jay said.
"I would have loved to have known earlier on that Sophie had a tongue tie and that was what was causing her issues because I had so many nights with a screaming baby, trying to work out what was wrong."
Debbie Jay, from The Mama Circle, was one of the first to vocally praise the procedure. (Image: Supplied/SBS)
For the Seward family the experience was less successful. After taking baby daughter Greta to see a dentist, they were told said "in no uncertain terms" that she needed to have the surgery.
Trusting the medical opinion, they took her to have the procedure.
"As soon as that laser hit her mouth, the screams were absolutely blood-curdling and it just went on and on and on," Eliza Seward told The Feed in a preview clip for Thursday night's episode.
"You could see smoke coming out of her mouth, you could smell it. I actually don't even think I was crying at that stage, I think just went numb. My husband kept saying 'hurry up, hurry up, you've got to stop, you're hurting her too much."
"He ended up in tears, I've never seen him cry."
Eliza Seward wants more regulation around the procedure. (Image: Supplied/SBS)
After being escorted into another room, Mrs Seward explains that she was told to give Greta a feed.
"She latched on and it was no different to how it had ever been before and the doctor walked in and kind of glanced and said, 'Oh yeah ,that's a really shallow latch, good thing you had that surgery done>"
"At that moment was when it clicked no one had watched me fed her and yet they had all been saying I needed to have this done for breastfeeding to continue successfully.
"At that point I don't think either of us thought we'd done the right thing which is a horrible thing to think as a parent."
"I can't believe they do that to little kids, it just blows my mind," she said.
"In hindsight I look back and I think, what an idiot, why would I listen to someone but, at that time I'm in pain, I'm incredibly sleep-deprived, I'm a new mother, I'm freaking out, I'm hearing someone who I'm meant to trust, telling me that I'm setting my child up for failure if I, if I don't go right ahead and get this done."
General Dentist, Jeff Kestenberg says there is great success to be found with the surgery. (Image: Supplied/SBS)

The experts are divided on tongue-tie surgery

According to General Dentist, Jeff Kestenberg, "There are no long term risks as far as we've been able to ascertain with the laser."I get a bit emotional about when we see another success story with the breastfeeding, it's fantastic."
However, Professor Laurie Walsh, former head of the Australian Dental Association of Queensland, disagrees, suggesting there was no good evidence that cutting any part of the baby's tongue actually helped them feed, and that the industry needed regulation.
Former head of the Australian Dental Association of Queensland, Professor Laurie Walsh says there was no good evidence that cutting any part of the baby's tongue actually helped them feed. (Image: Supplied/SBS)
"The evidence shows there is some limited benefit from just the simple cut, mostly on nipple pain in young mothers, but no long-term benefit on infant feeding," says Professor Walsh.
"The problem with going a lot of way further towards the back, posteriorly, as well as running into muscle, you run into a large plexus of veins, and that often causes post-operative bleeding. That can be a significant problem."
Eliza Seward agrees that the industry needs more regulation.
"It just seems like its a bit of a free for all," she says.
"I think it is being performed on a lot of children, who do not need it, and I'm disgusted by that because these are children who are, and babies who are rely, relying on us, to serve their best interests, to speak for them, because they can't speak for themselves, and we're putting them through this horrible procedure, unnecessarily."