The Procedure Taking the Medical World by Storm- and Hurting Infants

By Claire Wilson 

February 26, 2024

A New York Times investigation recently discovered a frightening trend in the medical industry. Procedures are increasingly being pushed onto patients who don’t need them, and patients are suffering the consequences. Tongue-tie release surgery is done on babies where the strip of skin connecting their tongue to the bottom of their mouth is shorter than usual. The surgery snips the tongue tie, allowing them to breastfeed more easily. Although this procedure has been done for centuries, it has recently been pushed more and more aggressively by lactation consultants and dentists, even for babies who do not have a tongue tie. 

In 2019, Lauren Lavelle, a new mother in Idaho, hired lactation consultant Melanie Henstrom, when her newborn, June, was having problems breastfeeding. Henstrom recommended the tongue tie release procedure without even meeting the baby, and told Lavelle that her baby could suffer from migraines, dehydration, eating problems, speech problems, learning disabilities, scoliosis, sleep apnea, and other complications. Desperate to help her baby, Lavelle agreed to the procedure. June was never able to breastfeed after that, and became very fragile and sensitive to sound. 

Lauren Lavelle and her daughter June (Photo credit: Natalie Behring for The New York Times)
(The New York Times)

In another case, over Facebook messenger, Henstrom advised a mother who was struggling with breastfeeding to get the procedure despite her pediatrician, physical therapist, and another lactation consultant telling her that a tongue tie was not the issue. “Trust me,” Henstrom said, “I have seen this hundreds of times and a revision always fixes it.” But it didn’t. Just a few weeks later, the baby had stopped eating, became dehydrated, and had to be hospitalized. 

According to a study at Johns Hopkins University, tongue tie releases have grown 800% from 1997 to 2012. The rise in these procedures has been primarily driven by the breastfeeding movement, and as more mothers choose to breastfeed, there is more demand for lactation consultants. “Only three states license lactation consultants, and they face little oversight compared with other medical professionals like nurses, doctors and dentists,” writes Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Katie Thomas of the New York Times. “The International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners says that consultants should not diagnose tongue-ties or other oral ties in babies.” Despite this, Henstrom has diagnosed countless clients and referred them to dentists to have procedures that they might not need. In fact, three of her clients have filed complaints to the board, saying that their babies have been harmed by Henstrom’s practices. 

(Photo credit: Jackie Molloy for The New York Times)

Harvard Medical School reports that “nearly 63 percent of children who were referred to a pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeon for tongue-tie and/or upper-lip tether surgery ended up not needing the procedure, and were able to successfully breastfeed following a thorough feeding evaluation by a multidisciplinary team of clinicians.” The rise in unnecessary procedures and surgeries is unfortunately not limited to infants. Surgeries such as bariatric surgery and hernia repair have also grown in recent years. The investigation identified three main reasons for this: financial incentives for doctors who push surgeries, a push from the medical device companies, and lack of solid medical research that healthcare providers take advantage of. According to a UCLA study, “higher-earning physicians earn more not by treating more patients but by offering more services per beneficiary.” This means that ordering more surgeries for patients who might not even need them can be very lucrative. 

The aforementioned Harvard report explains that these unnecessary procedures could be prevented by implementing feeding evaluation programs. Although these issues are largely rooted in the structure of the medical industry, smaller steps, like feeding evaluations and regulating lactation consultants, can be taken to protect patients on a larger scale.