By Cassidy Morrison Senior Health Reporter For Dailymail.Com
16:57 18 Dec 2023, updated 17:23 18 Dec 2023
- Doctors laser off skin tethering tongue to bottom of mouth to ease feeding
- Procedure is known to lead to malnourishment and dehydration in some babies
- READ MORE: Over 60 percent of ‘tongue-tied’ babies don’t need surgery
Doctors across the US are rushing families into having their babies’ tongues partly sliced off to make breastfeeding easier, an investigation has warned.
Known as ‘tongue tie surgery’, the involves using a laser to burn off excess skin under the tongue or the webbing that connects the lips and cheeks.
It is supposed to be used on babies with a genuine defect that prevents them from feeding properly but medical professionals have become increasingly liberal with prescribing it, despite around 60 percent of infants getting better without surgery.
The rate of surgeries performed ballooned by 800 percent between 1997 and 2012 fromaround 1,280 procedures to more than 12,000, with doctors and breastfeeding consultants are raking in millions of dollars annually.
In some cases, the procedure causes severe lasting pain in infants as well as difficulty eating, resulting in malnourishment that can require them to be hooked up to feeding tubes.
A number of doctors told a New York Times investigation that ,….. t a money grab by dentists and lactation experts who are subject to extremely little government oversight.
Surgery to release tongue ties – a condition in which an unusually short, thick, or tight band of tissue tethers the bottom of the tongue’s tip to the floor of the mouth – involves lasering away that band of tissue.
It has become a niche industry that, in some cases, brings in millions of dollars annually to dentists to perform the quick procedures for around $600 to $900 a pop on babies to ease breastfeeding.
Money is also passed along to the breastfeeding counselors who refer parents to doctors.
One of those lactation counselors is Idaho-based Melanie Henstrom, who, according to the New York Times has received several complaints from her clients and healthcare workers for aggressively pushing the procedure that is not always medically necessary.
The International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners has received at least three complaints about Ms Henstrom since 2020, including one from pediatric physical therapist Kelly Strickland, who said: ‘I was getting referred to parents who were uncomfortable, who went in for follow-up and said it was traumatic, that she pushed so hard on their baby’s mouth.’
Ms Henstrom has been known to recommend the procedure to mothers on Facebook without ever seeing the babies in person and has allegedly worsened babies’ pain by rooting around in their mouths and increasing pressure where the surgery was performed.
She also insisted to apprehensive parents that, without the surgery, their babies would never breastfeed again or eat solid foods.
But in reality, the procedure can result in a baby losing its ability to use his tongue to extract breast milk and eat solid food.
In one case, Ms Henstrom recommended the procedure to a Boise, Idaho mother named Tess Merrell via Facebook post despite a pediatrician, physical therapist, and lactation consultant insisting to her that tongue tie was not the root of her issue getting her baby to nurse comfortably.
Ms Merrell’s baby underwent the procedure and soon after became malnourished and dehydrated.
Ms Merrell, a high school soccer coach, said: ‘It was touted as this miracle cure.
‘We felt really stupid afterward because we paid to hurt our baby.’
The doctor who performed the procedure, Dr Joel Whitt, insisted that the Merrell’s experience was the only bad outcome of some 800 surgeries he has performed.
Ms Henstrom is also known to have referred patients exclusively to a dentist named Samuel Zink. During procedures in which Dr Zink cut babies’ mouths with a laser, Ms Henstrom held babies down while he performed the surgeries.
The New York Times investigation uncovered a litany of reports from mothers whose babies were placed on feeding tubes after losing an alarming amount of weight.
One mother in Montana who signed her baby up for the procedure in November 2022 reported that her baby lost her ability to suck and dropped from the 97th to the 15th percentile for weight in just three months.
In Delaware, a pediatric ear, nose, and throat doctor said she recently treated an 11-day-old baby who was hospitalized for severe weight loss following the procedure.
Between four and 11 percent of babies are born with the excess tissue that binds the tip of their tongue to the bottom of their mouth, but many doctors say the condition is harmless and evidence to back up claims it improves feeding is limited.
A notable analysis in 2017 examined five different studies with a total of 302 subjects to measure how well babies were breastfeeding after the tongue tie procedure. But the researchers behind the study issued major caveats, including the fact that the sample size was small and only two were double-blinded.
And none of the studies indicated any long-term benefit to a baby’s breastfeeding ability in the long-term, according to the analysis published in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
The researchers concluded: ‘Studies to date have not answered the clinically relevant question of whether [surgery] in tongue‐tied infants with feeding difficulties results in longer‐term breastfeeding success and resolution of maternal pain.’
‘Only one study has examined frenotomy in infants given the diagnosis of moderate tongue‐tie and found that frenotomy did not have an objective effect on infant feeding nor on maternal nipple pain but was subjectively effective.’
Doctors are sounding the alarm about the rising number of procedures performed that they deem medically unnecessary.
For example, Kentucky-based Pediatric Associates warned parents last year about the growing number of dentists offering laser surgery ‘at very high prices’, adding that ‘We have seen babies in severe pain after this procedure sometimes resulting in oral aversion (refusing to eat).’
A boom in baby formula production lasted from the late 19th century into the 1960s before breastfeeding re-emerged as the preferred method of feeding a baby.
In 1977, a survey of American mothers found that two out of five were breastfeeding their babies, double the percentage from 15 years before, largely due to a growing belief among women that breastfeeding gave their infants a natural, healthier way of getting vital nutrition.
Emily Foster is a globe-trotting journalist based in the UK. Her articles offer readers a global perspective on international events, exploring complex geopolitical issues and providing a nuanced view of the world’s most pressing challenges.