Known as one of the most common birth defects of the head and neck, cleft palate occurs when the roof of the infant’s mouth (the palate) does not properly develop during pregnancy, leaving an opening (cleft) in the palate that may continue through to the nasal cavity. Fortunately, this is a treatable condition.
A cleft can form on any part of the palate. It may appear in conjunction with other birth defects of the face, such as a cleft lip or form on its own. Until it is surgically corrected, it can interfere with eating, speech and hearing.
Although the causes of cleft palate are uncertain, your baby may be more prone to this condition if you use certain medications during your pregnancy, if you drink alcohol, take illegal drugs, or smoke during pregnancy. Further, if you are exposed to any radiation or an infection while you are pregnant, or if you have a family history of this birth defect, your baby may be more likely to be born with it. It goes without saying that it is vitally important to take good care of your health before and during pregnancy. (Of course, it is important to always take good care of your health!)
While some forms of cleft palate are readily visible at birth, sometimes it does not affect how the baby’s face looks. In such cases, it can usually be seen inside the mouth. The location of the cleft matters more than how it looks. For example, a small cleft on the soft palate may cause more difficulties with speech than a larger cleft that is easier to see.
Babies born with a cleft palate also encounter problems with feeding as they cannot suck or swallow normally. Some babies may even have trouble breathing.
Cleft palate can be diagnosed while the baby is still in the womb through the use of fetal ultrasound. This can be detected as early as 14 to 16 weeks into the pregnancy. However, since this procedure does not always find the problem, doctors do not rely on it to provide a diagnosis of cleft palate.
Treatment of cleft palate involves a group of health care providers, and the extent of treatment depends on the severity of the condition. Surgery is the most common treatment option. This is usually done when the baby is between the ages of one year and 18 months. As the child grows, further operations may be needed, but once the child reaches the teenage years, the problem is typically fixed.
Surgery can leave scars, but the palate usually heals well and leaves few signs of the cleft. The child’s facial bones will most likely grow normally, allowing for the child to speak more clearly. Some children who are born with cleft palate require additional treatment beyond surgery, as they may develop speech, hearing, or dental problems.
If your baby is born with cleft palate, it is important that you get help with feeding. A nurse can advise as to proper techniques in this regard. Be sure to watch for infections or problems with hearing and teeth. It is also important to pay attention to hearing, speech and dental care as your child grows and develops.
Be aware that caring for a child with cleft palate requires a lot of time and patience. There may be support groups in your area to help assist you during this time so you can meet others who are going through similar situations.