Three-month-old rushed to hospital following laser surgery for tongue-ties.
On 25th September, a three-month-old (X) bled heavily after a minor procedure that her mother had been led to believe would be as painless as a ‘light graze’. The surgery performed by a dentist in Australia was to eliminate oral restrictions, popularly known as ‘ties’.
X had been exclusively breastfed from birth and was thriving on her mother’s milk. When I spoke to mum, her personal account of new motherhood painted a picture that’s familiar to anyone who communicates with new mothers. She was struggling with the demands of breastfeeding a fussy baby that slept little, wanted to be held constantly and fed frequently. There had been some difficult personal circumstances, baby had some episodes of explosive green stools and mum a couple of bouts of mastitis. Mum’s breasts and nipples were mostly not sore but she had not mastered the knack of latching her baby deeply on to her breast. And, of course, she was exhausted.
Hers is a common story amongst new mothers. Breastfeeding requires varying amounts of time to establish and perfect, while this art is affected by a complex interplay of social, psychological and physiological factors. Apparently, mum and baby had not settled into their own rhythm: nonetheless, breastfeeding was working well enough and X was a picture of robust health, a gorgeous chubby bub.
Mum comes across as a determined lady who describes breastfeeding as ‘everything’ and as a vital ‘bond’ between the two of them. Persevering when she felt things weren’t improving, she sought help at a drop-in clinic, where she first heard that her baby might be struggling to breastfeed because of tongue-tie. The nurse who raised this as a possibility suggested mum employ a private lactation consultant because she herself was not trained in diagnosing ties. Mum took her advice and was encouraged to consult a body worker too. Mum learnt that X’s cheek ‘ties’ were so extreme they were causing facial tension, which resulted in one eye appearing smaller than the other. Perhaps I should keep my scepticism about this connection to myself.
Mum was told that her baby’s tongue restriction meant X was unable to ‘empty’ the breast, which had led to mum’s mastitis and that the ties were causing X to suck in air making her colicky and causing green foamy poo. There is no good scientific evidence to support any of these claims. Furthermore, mum was warned of potential future issues with speech and eating solids if X continued not to have full movement of her tongue. Such claims are groundless. Acting on this advice, however, mum booked her baby in for ‘body work’ on the 24th September and a dentist consultation the next day at which, if the ties were found to be severe enough, they’d be lasered there and then.
Upon arrival and before seeing the dentist, mum was asked a series of questions about her baby and X ticked all the boxes. The consultation did not include an observation of mum breastfeeding X. It did include a demonstration of aftercare exercises that the dental practice recommended be performed following laser surgery. She demonstrated the stretches on mum and they were painful. The force she used ripped open mum’s top lip. She asked whether she really had to do them quite so forcefully. The response was that this was necessary to prevent reattachment.
After this, the dentist came in, took photos of the baby’s mouth and said X had ‘pretty significant ties’ which needed to be eliminated. She ‘whisked her away’ and had mum wait outside the surgery as recommended. Something about such a recommendation didn’t feel right and mum was further unsettled by a screaming three-year-old who was there to undergo laser surgery too.
When X came out of surgery, mum said, ‘she seemed extremely stressed, hot and sweaty and her body seemed quite floppy. At this stage, her mouth was bleeding but only a small amount and they let me breastfeed her for literally one minute. She didn’t latch properly and was hurting me quite a lot, unlike prior to the surgery when I wasn’t experiencing any nipple pain. After the 60 seconds, her mouth was still bleeding slightly. They asked me to dress her and I paid and left. We drove back home, which took about 45 minutes.’
‘Once indoors, I tried to breastfeed her. She began bleeding from her top lip and was unable to latch. The bleeding eased off when I stopped trying to feed her and I gave her Panadol. A few hours later, I was getting concerned because she hadn’t fed and being such a young baby I didn’t want her sugars to drop. I tried to breastfeed her again, being as careful as possible not to hurt her. Immediately she began to bleed a lot. I tried to call the dentist a few times but I got no answer. I sent text messages with photos, asking if this was normal.
They got back to me 30 minutes later and said to apply pressure but this wasn’t working and the bleeding kept increasing. All the while, they kept telling me it was normal but I just knew it wasn’t right. They wanted me to come back to their dental surgery, which would have taken a couple of hours in peak-hour traffic, and I did not feel comfortable with the thought of going back there, but did start off by car. X began bleeding a lot more and became floppy and unresponsive. My dad was driving and I told him to take us straight to the hospital. I was desperately trying to keep her awake and putting pressure on the wound on her upper lip.
On arrival at the hospital, we were seen straight away. It took three doctors and four nurses to deal with the emergency. They used gauze soaked with adrenaline to stop the bleeding and close the capillaries. It took over 20 minutes of constant hard pressure. X was wrapped up and screaming while I was talking to her to try to calm her down, until finally the bleeding stopped. They gave her some little drops in her mouth to stop the pain. I’m not sure what it was.
She refused to breastfeed afterwards. And the wounds bled some more but lightly. Attempting to breastfeed just made her cranky and only after more pain relief did she finally settle sufficiently to have a feed. Latching continued to be painful for me from this point on.
Two days later, the bleeding had ceased but my nipples were sore and I visited the lactation consultant for help with latching. She showed me how to do some stretches but I decided that I wasn’t going to traumatise my daughter any further by doing this sort of harsh aftercare.’
Nine days later, X was still very unhappy, had a temperature, and mum was still having to give her pain relief before she would settle enough to breastfeed. The doctor said her wounds were beginning to heal and were not infected but it was clear that she was still suffering considerable discomfort. And mum was more exhausted than ever.
I was lied to. I was told it’s all proven by scientific facts but the reality is
I paid more than $1200 AUD for them to torture my baby.
‘It’s not just me, obviously, there are more parents who have been in this situation, but most don’t bother to say anything. You sign a waiver about the possibility of bleeding but the providers of such surgery state it’s rare.
I told the dentist what she was doing was barbaric. She wouldn’t stop contacting me. So I told her I was making a complaint against her and that I’m unhappy with what has happened and I cannot understand how she can do this to babies.
I wish I had researched the whole thing in more detail before going ahead. I wish I’d known how cruel the procedure really is, how traumatic for my baby and for every baby. I feel I have been lied to because they do not have proof that these surgeries help with breastfeeding, improve babies’ sleep, or prevent any future potential problems. Those were fake empty promises made so they could take my money. It’s just a scam.’ Nor was it any consolation to mum that the surgery to sever the buccal ties was complimentary.
I shall be interested, in due course, to hear how the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) responds to this mother’s complaint.
You can read my well-referenced blog posts on tongue-tie here: