Dads – it’s time to get real about seeking help for your kids

It wasn’t until my youngest son became limp and unresponsive and his lips turned blue that I listened to my desperate wife’s pleas to call an ambulance.

After all, it was his seventh or eighth croup attack of his five years of age and we were well used to the trips in the ambulance, him hooked up to a nebuliser, breathing in humid air and steroids. Then several hours of waiting around in a paediatric emergency room before the inevitable discharge in the wee small hours armed with nothing more than a bottle of prednisone and the warning that once the stridor started, it was too late for the “Ready Pred” anyway. I guess we were supposed to have psychic powers to know when we were supposed to give our small child a powerful steroid.

We had also been through even more numerous admissions with mysterious febrile convulsions before his third birthday, only to have him released with no real diagnosis after we’d fought off the usual attempts to put him through the third lumbar puncture of his young life.

So maybe I can be forgiven for being sceptical about the need to rush my ill child off to hospital at the first wheeze. Not much seemed to happen there anyway, other than mother and child losing a night’s sleep to observations and bright lights.

I consider myself to be a pretty logical sort of guy. I’m not a health professional but I guess I’m reasonably educated with my share of degrees and post graduate qualifications. His croup attacks always happened on cold dry nights and I’d heard that warm, moist air could fend them off. So, when the barking cough started, I would leap out of bed, run the hot shower and hold him in my arms, sitting on the side of the bath while my worried wife called an ambulance. But on this occasion, I thought we could do without the ambulance and what seemed to be another unnecessary trip to the hospital.

Turns out I was dead wrong with my layman’s remedy. On the night in question, when the ambulance arrived the ambos urged us in the sternest terms to call them immediately on the presentation of symptoms of croup. This was truly a question of life and death and a child could rapidly lose consciousness and stop breathing if left untreated.

The funny thing is my wife is a health professional, a dentist and still I didn’t listen. I’m pretty embarrassed about that now, but I think a funny thing happens to a lot of dads when his child is suspected of having a medical condition or some other sort of health issue. It’s like we go into denial. Maybe if we’re sceptical enough, it might not be true. Like we can hold it off through the power of our doubt alone. When our delusions are exposed through an oversized dose of reality, it can be a bitter pill indeed to swallow. Not least because in our denial, we may have delayed the treatment that could have helped the very child we are trying to protect.

Fast forward a few years and a few jobs and I’ve recently found myself running the dental practice my wife and I started in 2010. After almost two decades working in corporations, it’s a wonderful new challenge, albeit testing me to my limits with work that offers a tremendous service to others. Last year, our receptionist moved away and we had a six-week gap where I worked on reception. Needless to say it was a lot more challenging than I could have imagined. You see, my wife is Dr Marjan Jones and in addition to her general dentistry she performs laser surgery to release tongue and lip ties on children and adults, starting from a few days old to those in their seventies.

During this time, I talked to a lot of mums and dads who had been told, or suspected that their child had a tongue and/or lip tie. What surprised me was how often mothers whose child had suffered in many cases for months and sometimes years with the symptoms of undiagnosed ties, struggled to get the father of their child to even consider that a midline defect such as tongue and lip ties may be the cause of the symptoms they were experiencing. This was true even when the mother was herself in excruciating pain while breastfeeding, suffering vasospasm or severely damaged nipples, not to mention the reflux, short feeds, lack of sleep and other challenges with which the child was suffering.

In my conversations, I found the objections of dads tended to fall into two categories and I realised as a dad, I had myself employed both types of objection. The first would be the “she’ll be right, mate” category.

It’s tough to determine the exact origin of this one, but in essence this is the idea that whatever the problem is today, it will eventually go away. This is the way many of us men approach issues to do with our own health. Got an unusual pain, blood in the urine or a mole that rapidly grows and changes colour, many men will simply take a “she’ll be right” attitude in the hope that it will go away. In recent years I’ve had three blood tests as part of a general medical (on my wife’s urging), but never gone back for the results, because “she’ll be right, mate” and besides if anything was seriously wrong, the GP would have called me. Right?

This cavalier attitude to our own health is one thing, but when it comes to the wellbeing of the mother of our child and/or the health of the child themselves, then we’ve got to get real and seek help. Maybe it is nothing, and maybe everything will be alright, but we’ll never know for sure if we stick our head in the sand and hope it goes away.

The second category is “opinion shopping”. This one is often a more powerful form of denial. This involves finding a medical opinion that conforms with our “she’ll be right” attitude or our layman’s diagnosis and then relying on this opinion to the exclusion of any other information to the contrary. In business we refer to this as “confirmation bias”. I see this one a lot. Given the lack of education on the identification, diagnosis and treatment of tongue and lip ties amongst doctors and dentists, it is not uncommon to hear that a doctor, whether GP or specialist, who seldom have training in the identification and treatment of ties, has dismissed the existence of a tie or suggested a child will grow out of it, that it will stretch or will break on its own. If only I had a dollar for every time I heard from the parents I spoke to during that stint on the front desk, that their GP or Paediatrician had given this very advice, had told them ties were a fad, didn’t affect breastfeeding or was just dentists seeking to pay off expensive lasers.

But you know what was most heartbreaking was that these mums, suffering as they were, knew there was something wrong and no one would listen. Imagine how much worse that would be if the father of her child also refused to listen to her concerns or dismissed them with a “she’ll be right” or “the doctor knows best” attitude. If you’re one of those dads, like me, and you’ve done this, like I have, then you may be feeling a bit uncomfortable right about now. That may lead you to dismiss all of this as nonsense or perhaps it might prompt a rethink, but whatever it does, I hope it might lead you to listen carefully to what your partner is experiencing. If she is in pain, this is not normal and if she gets to the point where it goes away, it probably means her nipples have calloused and lost sensitivity – and that can’t be good!

Maybe all of this comes from our inner caveman. Faced with a medical practitioner bearing scissors or lasers targeting our nearest and dearest, I can understand why any self-respecting Cave Dad would be ready to club away the offending sabre-wielding Doc, even if in this day and age our most potent weapon to hand is scepticism.

But when it comes to ties, here are the facts.

Ties don’t get better on their own. If your child won’t settle, clicks while feeding, has persistent symptoms of reflux, pulls off the breast, dribbles milk or any of the many other symptoms of ties, seek help from a knowledgeable practitioner, well trained in ties and their impact on mothers and babies.

Ties have a life-long impact and strong genetic component. The fact your child has ties may mean you do too and before you think, “well I turned out alright” ask yourself whether you snore, have obstructive sleep apnoea, neck or upper back pain, crowded teeth or a history of braces (especially where teeth relapse after braces are removed), frequent upper respiratory tract infections, tonsillitis, or breathe through your mouth – all of which may indicate ties in adults and are proof positive that ties don’t get better on their own. While there are other contributors to these conditions, it’s entirely possible you’ve suffered from the effects of ties your whole life, without even realising it, and you may now have the opportunity to help your child minimise the chance of these symptoms in their later life.

Treatment of tongue and lip ties are best carried out as young as possible to maximise the chances of a positive breastfeeding experience, which in turn leads to optimum oro-facial development and minimises the chance of poor oral habits developing – so the sooner you seek help the better.

So my fellow Dads, hear my plea – what could possibly be more precious than your child and his or her mother? If they’re in need, dodge the reflexive objections, lay down your club of scepticism, get real and seek help as soon as you can! I guarantee they’ll thank you for it and you will truly have protected your family!

Anton Jones – Dad