The American Academy of Pediatrics and other healthcare organizations recommend breastfeeding as the best means for infant feeding. While bottle feeding can supply the nutrition necessary for a baby’s healthy development, breastfeeding also provides emotional benefits for both baby and mother.
But there might be an obstacle in a baby’s mouth that prevents them from getting a good seal on the mother’s breast nipple—a small band of tissue called a frenum. This term describes any tissue that connects a soft part of the mouth like the upper lip or tongue to a more rigid structure like the gums or the floor of the mouth, respectively.
Although a normal part of anatomy, frenums that are too short, thick or inelastic can restrict a baby’s lip or tongue movement and prevent an adequate seal while nursing. The baby may adjust by chewing rather than sucking on the nipple. Besides a painful experience for the mother, the baby may still not receive an adequate flow of breast milk.
Bottle-feeding is an option since it may be easier for a baby with abnormal frenums to negotiate during nursing. But the problem might also be alleviated with a minor surgical procedure to snip the frenum tissue and allow more freedom of movement.
Often performed in the office, we would first numb the frenum and surrounding area with a topical anesthetic, sometimes accompanied by injection into the frenum if it’s abnormally thick. After the numbing takes effect, we gently expose the tissue and cut it with either surgical scissors or a laser, the latter of which may involve less bleeding and discomfort. The baby should be able to nurse right away.
If you wait later to undergo the procedure, the baby may already have developed compensation habits while nursing. It may then be necessary for a lactation consultant to help you and your baby “re-learn” normal nursing behavior. It’s much easier, therefore, to attempt this procedure earlier rather than later to avoid extensive re-training.
While there’s little risk, frenum procedures are still minor surgery. You should, therefore, discuss your options completely with your dental provider. Treating an abnormal frenum, though, could be the best way to realize the full benefits of breastfeeding.