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July 11, 2019Press Release

Study Questions if Tongue-Tie Surgery for Breastfeeding is Always Needed

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Ryan Jaslow 

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New research shows majority of infants referred for frenulectomy were able to breastfeed and avoid surgery following multidisciplinary feeding evaluation

Boston, Mass. — New research raises questions as to whether too many infants are getting tongue-tie and upper lip tether surgery (also called frenulectomy) to help improve breastfeeding, despite limited medical evidence supporting the procedure. In a new study, published July 11 in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, nearly 63 percent of children who were referred to a pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeon for tongue-tie and/or upper lip tether surgery ended up not needing the procedure, and were able to successfully breastfeed following a thorough feeding evaluation by a multidisciplinary team of clinicians, including a speech-language pathologist. A feeding evaluation program implemented on a wider scale may prevent infants from getting a surgery that might not be beneficial to improve breastfeeding, according to the study’s authors.

"We have seen the number of tongue-tie and upper lip tether release surgeries increase dramatically nationwide without any real strong evidence that shows they are effective for breastfeeding," says Christopher J. Hartnick, MD, MS, Director of the Division of Pediatric Otolaryngology and the Pediatric Airway, Voice and Swallowing Center at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. “We don’t have a crystal ball that can tell us which infants might benefit most from the surgeries, but this preliminary study provides concrete evidence that this pathway of a multidisciplinary feeding evaluation is helping prevent babies from getting this procedure."

Present at birth, tongue-tie, or ankyloglossia, is a condition in which a piece of tissue, called the lingual frenulum, connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth too tightly. Infants can also experience upper lip ties when a different tissue, the frenulum of the upper lip, is connected to the gum. In some cases, this restriction in movement can result in difficulty with breastfeeding or, in rarer cases, may affect dental health or speech later in childhood.

Breastfeeding is recommended by numerous health organizations worldwide as a preferred method of infant feeding for the newborn’s growth and development. When there are difficulties breastfeeding, including the baby not latching on or gaining weight and when the mother is in pain, many new parents seek a consultation, which may result in surgery to clip the tongue-tie, which is sometimes called a frenotomy, frenectomy, or frenulectomy.

Despite a lack of medical literature linking the surgery to improved breastfeeding, the number of these procedures has been rapidly rising in recent years according to the authors. They note that the Kids’ Inpatient Database in the United States estimated a 10-fold increase in tongue-tie surgeries from 1,279 in 1997 to 12,406 in 2012.

Prompted by these rising rates and an influx of parents seeking second opinions, Dr. Hartnick and colleagues formed a multidisciplinary feeding evaluation program at Mass. Eye and Ear. It consists of clinicians from different medical specialties, including pediatric otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat), pulmonology, gastroenterology and speech language pathology, which includes staff from Massachusetts General Hospital.

The researchers examined 115 newborns who were referred to the clinic for tongue-tie surgery with a pediatric otolaryngologist. There, each mother-newborn pair met with a pediatric speech-language pathologist, who performed a comprehensive feeding evaluation, including clinical history, oral exam and observation of breastfeeding. They then offered real-time feedback and strategies to address the hypothesized cause of their breastfeeding challenges.

Following the evaluation, 62.6 percent of the newborns did not undergo surgery. Although all of the referrals were for tongue-tie surgery specifically, 10 (8.7 percent) underwent a lip tie surgery alone and 32 (27.8 percent) underwent both lip and tongue-tie surgery.

Future multicenter trials are planned as well as follow-up outcomes studies comparing infants who did and did not undergo tongue-tie surgery longer term.

The study’s authors call for best practice guidelines to be developed to help with this decision-making throughout the medical community.

“We’ve learned that an interdisciplinary collaboration is key to a thorough feeding evaluation,” says study co-author Cheryl Hersh, MS, CCC-SLP, a pediatric speech-language pathologist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, who sees patients at the Mass. Eye and Ear Pediatric Airway, Voice and Swallowing Center. "This is still a work in progress, but we have learned a great deal about what we can do differently to help our patients and their families. In doing so, we have been able to identify many babies who are having breastfeeding problems that are not related to their lip or tongue anatomy.”

Tongue-tie and upper lip tether release surgeries are relatively safe outpatient procedures performed with local anesthetic, with risks being similar to any surgical procedure, including pain and infection. Parents have also reported experiencing psychological pain or guilt from the feeding difficulties and resulting surgery. There can also be significant out of pocket costs given the variation in who performs these procedures. Dental professionals, pediatric otolaryngologists and neonatologists often provide these services with unpredictable cost and coverage by medical insurance.

Authors of the JAMA Otolaryngology include Drs. Hartnick, Christen L. Caloway, MD, and Gillian R. Diercks, MD, MPH, at Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Harvard Medical School and Cheryl J. Hersh, MS, CCC-SLP, Rebecca Baars, MS, CCC-SLP, and Sarah Sally, MS, CCC-SLP, of Massachusetts General Hospital. No funding was secured for this study.

About Massachusetts Eye and Ear

Massachusetts Eye and Ear, founded in 1824, is an international center for treatment and research and a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. A member of Partners HealthCare, Mass. Eye and Ear specializes in ophthalmology (eye care) and otolaryngology–head and neck surgery (ear, nose and throat care). Mass. Eye and Ear clinicians provide care ranging from the routine to the very complex. Also home to the world's largest community of hearing and vision researchers, Mass. Eye and Ear scientists are driven by a mission to discover the basic biology underlying conditions affecting the eyes, ears, nose, throat, head and neck and to develop new treatments and cures. In the 2018-2019 "Best Hospitals Survey,"U.S. News & World Report ranked Mass. Eye and Ear #4 in the nation for eye care and #6 for ear, nose and throat care. For more information about life-changing care and research at Mass. Eye and Ear, please visit our blog, Focus, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.