What Is a Cleft Palate/Cleft Lip?

Between the fourth and seventh weeks of pregnancy, babies will begin to develop their brain and spinal cord. During this time, the lips are also formed, as cells grow from each side of the head to meet in the middle and form the face. For reasons that are still unknown (although research has found higher risk factors), babies may not fully join their lips before birth. Professionals now point to genetic and environmental factors such as smoking for increased risks. This gap can be small or large, and extend through the lips into the nose. 

Between the sixth and ninth weeks in utero, the roof of the mouth forms. In cases where it does not join before birth, the result is a gap in the palate, referred to as a cleft palate. Either type of cleft can lead to developmental issues, as well as problems with speaking, eating, and hearing. Children are also more susceptible to ear infections.

Cleft palates/cleft lips constitute the most common type of birth defects, as the CDC has confirmed. In the United States:

  • 1 in every 1,600 babies is born with both a cleft lip and palate.
  • 1 in every 2,800 babies is born with a cleft lip.
  • 1 in every 1,700 babies is born with a cleft palate.

Diagnosing Cleft Palate

Orofacial clefts can be diagnosed during pregnancy with an ultrasound or visually after the baby is born. Some types of cleft palate (i.e. submucous cleft palate) may not be easy to see and will likely delay the diagnosis until later in life.

Adults dealing with an untreated cleft lip, palate, or both can receive treatment to improve their overall health and appearance. Even if treated during childhood, these issues can still cause problems with speaking, eating, hearing, and more. In some cases, surgery may help to improve speaking, as well as provide aesthetic improvements. Many patients cite big improvements in confidence after undergoing treatment for previously untreated cleft lips and palates.

Developmental Concerns

  • Hearing — In addition to frequent ear infections, children with cleft palates/lips are more susceptible to limitations in hearing. Hearing loss is often due to fluid in the middle ear (effusion) and frequent infections.
  • Speaking — Without a smooth palate for speaking, patients with orofacial clefts often face serious challenges in proper speaking and communication. 
  • Eating — A cleft palate or lip may impact a newborn’s ability to feed. Solid foods can also make chewing and swallowing difficult, causing frustration and anxiety.

Treatment Options

One of the most effective treatments for cleft lips and plates is a palatoplasty, where an ENT surgeon will perform plastic surgery to repair the split. The goal of this surgery is to restore the child’s ability to speak and eat and promote better ear health. In more severe cases, additional surgeries and followup care will be needed. Alpine ENT can help coordinate surgery for your child to achieve a beneficial outcome, as earlier intervention is recommended in promoting lifelong benefits.

Beyond surgery to repair the cleft itself, a cleft palate may require treatment for conditions associated with cleft complications, including breathing problems, frequent ear infections, hearing loss, speech problems, dental issues, and feeding problems.

Coordinating Care With Specialists

If you or your child is receiving care for a cleft palate, it is important for your medical professionals to coordinate with one another to create an effective care plan focusing on minimally invasive services, reducing the times going under anesthesia and reducing the discomfort of multiple treatments. Your baby, for example, may require ear tubes to help equalize pressure and reduce the rate of ear infections, and can have this process completed during their initial repair surgery. 

Call Alpine Ear, Nose & Throat

Our ENT doctors in Loveland and Fort Collins are trained and experienced in dealing with cleft palate and lip issues, helping patients to achieve a lifetime of improved development and confidence. With more than 40 years of combined experience in serving Northern Colorado, we’re confident that our ENT doctors, audiologists, and physical therapists can help in promoting a lifetime of comfort and confidence.

Contact us online or fill out the form below if you’re looking for treatment for a cleft palate or lip, and be sure to browse our site to learn more about our team.