As soon as Amber Fassnacht’s son, Xander, was born, she had trouble breastfeeding. The hospital gave him formula milk, much to the young mother’s dismay. For the next eight weeks, Amber struggled to get her son breastfed while he continued to lose weight.
“We’ve been back and forth for two weeks, working with doctors and lactation consultants, but he’s not gaining weight and I have pain. There isn’t supposed to be pain,” Amber said. She and her husband grew alarmed when their infant began steadily losing weight.
“Xander lost seven percent of his birth weight and was experiencing what’s known as ‘failure to thrive,’” said pediatric dentist James Jesse, meaning he was sucking air instead of milk, which can have moderate to severe consequences.
Roughly four million babies are born in the U.S. annually. One in five has similar trouble breastfeeding, and in some cases, trouble feeding at all.
Dr. Jesse said, “I know it’s not a new problem, but as far back as the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, pediatricians had the attitude of ‘just give ‘em a bottle.’”
New parents Yadi and Marcos Monroe traveled several hours to reach Dr. Jesse when their son Mason had similar issues. Their insurance company denied requests to see a specialist, telling them nothing was wrong with their son and suggesting they switch to formula.
Yadi said, “We took him to the pediatrician and he said everything was fine, and if he lost weight to give him formula. I want that connection. I was ‘that’ mom. And I just knew something was wrong.”
Dr. Jesse explained to both sets of parents they couldn’t breastfeed properly because their baby’s upper lip tie or tongue couldn’t latch, causing him to suck in air instead of milk.
Dr. Jesse has been performing an intricate laser surgery known as a “frenectomy” on babies and children at his Loma Linda office for nearly 20 years. The simple oral surgical procedure is very common for infants and involves removal of the frenulum, a small, thick band of tissue inside the middle of the upper lip or under the tongue which tethers the bottom of the tongue’s tip to the floor of the mouth. Tongue-tie can affect the way a child eats, speaks, and swallows, and interferes with breastfeeding.
“I believe just before birth there’s a chemical process that stops that tiny bit of tissue from dissolving, which results in the infant being tongue or lip tied,” he said. Seeing an infant eat for the first time is very emotional and uplifting for Dr. Jesse, who works tirelessly to educate parents and dentists about the procedure in hopes of helping families thrive. Motivation and a commitment to helping others is typical of the American Spirit.
“Mason has a severe lip tie and severe tongue tie, so two issues are keeping him from feeding properly. Your tongue needs to move up and out at the same time, so with this fixed and the tongue fixed, life gets better,” said Dr. Jesse. He points to research indicating speech problems, tooth decay, abnormal bone growth, and sleep apnea are all associated with tongue and lip tie. Yadi wipes away tears and hugs Dr. Jesse, who tells her nothing but good will happen from that point forward.
Dr. Jesse works with nearby teaching hospital Loma Linda University Medical Center and Children’s Hospital and travels to different states to teach others about the procedure.
Dr. Howard Kim is a pediatric dentist from Hawaii who came to California to learn from Dr. Jesse. “I came here to observe Dr. Jesse because I need to improve my skills. So far, I’ve done 35 patients and have dozens more waiting,” he said.
Last year, dentists and patients traveled from China, Italy, Hong Kong, and Iran in the hope that Dr. Jesse could help them. He says dentists are afraid of babies when it comes to the procedure, so he’s eager to train others as he can’t help them all.
It’s not just babies who need Dr. Jesse’s help. Thirteen-year-old Joseph is a big fan of basketball and cheeseburgers. What he isn’t a fan of is the big gap between his front teeth, a problem created by being lip-tied since birth. His mother, Wendy, said, “He’s growing up. He doesn’t want that gap, but when he was an infant it didn’t bother him. As he got older, the space between his front teeth made him very self-conscious.” With the whirring noise of the laser machine nearby, in 90 seconds Joseph’s lip tie was gone. He gave Dr. Jesse a big thumbs up!
Both doctors and dentists can help parents decide what’s right for their family and determine whether a child’s condition is serious enough to interfere with development.