Back in 2007, I began to be puzzled by the high incidence of tongue-tie in babies, and how much it can affect breastfeeding. I blogged about it here at the time: Tongue-Tie, unsure whether tongue-tie was being overdiagnosed, whether it had always been with us at this level, and whether something was inhibiting our ability to cope with tongue-tied babies. In so many ways it seems to me the obstacles to breastfeeding happen when we deviate from natural birth and separate mothers and babies after birth whether in the early hours with routine newborn procedures, or weeks or months later as moms are forced back to work by pathetic maternity leave policies. And yet on the issue of tongue-tie, it’s the breastfeeding supporters advocating to diagnose this more often and treat tongue-ties with clipping procedures – more medical intervention to make breastfeeding work better.
Because this is an anatomical issue, it’s not likely that medical interventions or cultural practices contribute much to the breastfeeding difficulties. Minor tongue-ties can resolve themselves if the mother can stand some uncomfortable latching at first as the baby’s tongue stretches out over the early months, and if the mother is willing to let the baby hang out for long hours at the breast trying to get enough milk with a poor latch. But some descriptions I’d read of the pain and supply drops that can come with nursing a tongue-tied baby convinced me that cultural attitudes about breastfeeding management weren’t the only factor in the high modern incidence of tongue-ties requiring clipping.
Another explanation could be that lactation consultants are clip-happy and perceive a higher tongue-tie rate than is warranted. And again, that maybe be a factor, but I’m not convinced that explains the observed tongue-tie rate either.
This April, I finally found a plausible theory, and it’s been chilling to think about. The prevalence of endocrine disruptors in our personal care products, our food packaging, our drinking water may be leading to increased birth defects – particularly the “midline” defects that involve glitches in formation along the long axis of our body during the first trimester of pregnancy. Tongue-tie is a midline defect, as is cleft palate, some heart defects, hypospadias (a penile deformation) and spina bifida. A doctor in Indianapolis – Paul Winchester – even claims to have found a seasonal variation in such birth defects – hypothesizing that this is due to exposure to agricultural pesticides. An interview with Dr. Winchester on the radio show Living on Earth aired in April, 2009 and the transcript is also available at that link.
What inspired me to write this now was the column this week by NY Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof: It’s Time to Learn from Frogs. He goes over the mounting deformities in fish and amphibians and connects it to genital deformations in male babies – 7% now with undescended testicles, and 1% with hypospadias. He also appeared on the Colbert Report to spread the news more widely.
Seems to me we can chalk up another consequence of the toxic environment we have made for ourselves – increased struggles with breastfeeding due to anatomical defects in our babies. More mothers experiencing pain and difficulty breastfeeding – more babies unable to nurse adequately – more babies needing doctors to believe that clipping at a bit of skin can save their chances at breastfeeding. The vast intervention of our toxic load precipitates more interventions to try to restore healthful normal feeding and development.
Of course the effects of endocrine disruptors go beyond breastfeeding success, but breastfeeding never seems to get mentioned as a casualty of toxic exposure, perhaps because breastfeeding is so often framed as a matter of personal choice and personal struggles. I’d like to draw a line from this private pain to a constellation of other disruptions of the natural order, and admit that I’m more convinced now that we really are seeing more tongue-tie now than in decades past.