Understanding Cleft Lips and Cleft Palates in Infants
Oral clefts are one of the most visually noticeable birth defects among infants. Although a cleft lip or cleft palate is mostly just a visual defect, it can be a difficult birth defect to live with. The fourth most common birth defect in the U.S, cleft lips or cleft palates affect one in 750 babies each year, according to Web MD. Children with oral clefts can suffer from embarrassment and can also have difficulties talking and eating if a cleft lip palate is not treated.
It is important for parents to understand oral clefts, how they form and what can be done to prevent and treat them.
What is an oral cleft?
An oral cleft is a deformation of the lip, generally close to the nose. The deformity is true to its name, as it resembles a space, gap or indentation in the mouth area. There are several kinds of oral clefts, including a cleft lip, a cleft palate or a combination of the two.
A cleft lip is where the infant’s lip tissues did not fully connect during development. When the child is born it will appear as a gap in the lip. More boys than girls have cleft lips, according to Kids Health. However, more girls than boys have cleft palates.
Located on the roof of the mouth behind the teeth, A cleft palate is where the infant’s oral palate fails to close during development, leaving a gap in the hard or soft palate that can vary in length. Sometimes this gap in the palate can expose the underside of the nose and lead to nasal complications.
An infant can have both a Cleft lip and a Cleft palate, where both the lip and the palate have a gap. This happens when both the tissue of the lips and the plates fail to connect.
Lip features develop early in fetal growth, usually around eight weeks. This often allows lip deformities to be seen before the baby is born via ultrasound. However, treatments cannot commence until after the baby is born.
What can be done about it?
Oral clefts are caused by environmental and genetic factors. Despite this knowledge, there is currently no process in place guaranteed to prevent the development of oral clefts. One suggestion to mothers is to make sure they are not on any strong medications, especially acne medications. Maintaining a healthy diet is wise as well. However, once a fetus has developed an oral cleft, surgery is the most common treatment.
Fortunately, medicine has evolved to the point where many oral cleft conditions are treatable with surgery. Palatoplasty is the surgical procedure used to reconstruct the palate of patients with a cleft palate. The surgery is intended to close the abnormal opening between the nose and mouth as well as help the patient develop normal speech and aid in swallowing, breathing and normal development of the mouth.
Many of these surgeries are personalized, as each cleft lip palate is different. The best time to have this surgery is when the child is between six and 12 months old. This gives them the best advantage at recovering fully.
Is surgery the best option?
As discussed earlier, all oral clefts are different, so none can be treated the same way. In some cases, such as minor cleft lips, patients may only require small surgical procedures to make the deformity look non-existent. However in other cases, the cleft palate can severely affect speech and lifestyle.
Parents who are preparing to have a child with an oral cleft should discuss all available options with a doctor, specifically a pediatric surgeon, who can better explain exactly what their child will need.