Each year, cleft lip, cleft palate, and craniofacial conditions affect thousands of children worldwide. Some parents learn about these conditions during pregnancy, while others find out at birth. So…What is it? Cleft lip and cleft palate (or a combination of both) are congenital birth defects caused when a child’s mouth or oral cavity is not properly fused together. Cleft lip is a gap in the area between the lip and nose, while cleft palate is a gap in the roof of the mouth. These gaps are a result of muscles that are not completely joined together.
Surgical options for both types of clefts are available. Techniques and technology continue to improve each year, often leaving only a tiny scar. After surgery, children generally require speech and language therapy and orthodontic care to ensure proper oral function. A multidisciplinary team of surgeons, ENTs, orthodontists, dentists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists will work together to help the child function optimally post-surgery.
What’s the cause?
Unfortunately, the cause of orofacial clefts is unknown. However there are factors that increase a baby’s likelihood of having clefts. A family history of cleft lips or cleft palates increases a child’s of clefts. Additionally, health conditions such as maternal diabetes and maternal obesity pose risks for babies. Risk factors may also include poverty or poor environmental conditions during pregnancy, however clefts are seen in children of any race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.
What difficulties are associated with cleft?
Children with clefts can experience health, developmental, and social difficulties. Social challenges may include difficulty developing appropriate social skills and discrimination from others. Health and developmental difficulties include feeding challenges, speech and language deficits, breathing difficulties, dental problems, and hearing trouble and ear infections. In regards to hearing, many children with cleft palates require a surgery called myringotomy with tubes. This surgery allows for adequate middle ear drainage so that the child may gain a full range of hearing. Without the tubes, build up of middle ear fluid and ear infections are common, which may contribute to hearing loss. Keeping this in mind, it is important to remember to have early hearing evaluations for children with clefts. Early hearing assessments can be key to future success in hearing.
Does my child need surgery?
A child with clefts may or may not need surgery. If surgery is elected, the ideal surgery starts as young as 3 months old and involves closing the lip or palate. Early surgeries help to avoid potential problems with development, including eating, breathing, and speech. If your child is diagnosed with a cleft lip or palate, consider seeking input from a specialized center due to the delicacy of the surgery.
What does the future hold for my child?
Children with cleft lips or palates and their families can expect to live a healthy life post-surgery. Many children benefit from help of a multidisciplinary team, including a speech-language pathologist to assist in communication difficulties and speech errors. With the help of a few professionals, children born with a cleft lip or palate will grow up to be as successful, fulfilled and happy as any other child!
Where can I find further research, material, and resources?
Liana Martinez, M.A. CCC-SLP