Helping tongue-tied kids

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
May 12, 2008 5:04:38 PM PDT
Some children are born with a defect under their tongue that can affect the way they speak, and it can lead to other issues later in life.With more on treatment options, Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg.

Everyone jokes about being tongue-tied when they have trouble pronouncing words with repeated letters or sounds. But it is a real condition, an inherited one, that can affect children from the newborn stage to adolescence. And there's a simple cure.

Sticking out your tongue seems pretty simple for a youngster to do. And being able to say "la la la" doesn't seem like much to get excited about, but it is for 4-year-old Billy Moloney and his parents. Billy was born with ankyloglossia. He was tongue-tied.

"He couldn't put his tongue to the roof of his mouth, so he would go 'yollipop' instead of 'lollipop,'" mom Alexis Moloney said. "And he had a friend John Luke, but Billy called him John Wook."

Most kids can raise their tongue because the frenulum, which holds it to the mouth floor, is long enough. The frenulum is too short in kids who are tongue tied. It's an inherited birth defect, most often not linked to other problems.

But it can make sucking and nursing difficulty for newborns. It can also cause speech impediments.

"Many times, even if you get over the speech issues, it becomes a problem," said Dr. Michael Stewart, of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. "Because if they go to lick an ice cream cone, it's embarrassing because they can't do it like their friends can do it."

The solution is a simple surgery that cuts the frenulum to free up the tongue. It can be done in kids as young as a few months.

There is a bit of controversy over the surgery, however. Some say that speech therapy can solve the problem.

Kids can learn to compensate, but Dr. Stewart feels that this simple anatomic restriction is best treated.

"It makes more sense to have an anatomic restriction addressed surgically, which is a very minor procedure," he said. "And they have some speech therapy to help them recover and they do fine."

Sometimes a child may outgrow a minor tongue-tied state, but what about Billy?

"In this particular case, it was severe enough that it was worth taking action," his father, Sean Moloney, said.

If it's left untreated, being tongue tied in adolescents and young adults means they may have problems with even pleasurable things, like kissing. Pediatricians are usually the doctors who pick up on the problem and can refer parents to a specialist.