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What is a Cleft Palate?

By Garry Crystal
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

A cleft palate is an opening in the hard or soft palate in the mouth. It can also appear on the lips. The openings usually occur when the child is still forming before birth. A cleft palate is caused by incorrect formation of the mouth.

During the embryonic stage when the baby is forming, growth in the mouth may not occur in the proper directions. Also, during this stage, the bonding of the bones inside the mouth may not occur. Cleft palate occurs almost twice as often in males as in females.

A cleft palate can be a single occurrence in the mouth, or it can affect both the lips and the inside of the mouth. The areas in the mouth that may be affected are the soft area at the back of the mouth and the hard area in the roof of the mouth. The split can also proceed to the gum area, the teeth and the lip. Doctors do not know the reason a cleft palate occurs, but it is thought that it may be an inherited problem. Also, illness in the mother during pregnancy or the use of tobacco, drugs or alcohol may play a part.

Separation of the nasal and oral cavities also results from cleft palate. A baby with a cleft palate will have difficultly suckling, as it cannot maintain a proper sucking action. People with cleft palates also have difficulty with speech. The only option in such cases may be to perform surgery.

There has been much dispute over the correct time to perform prosthesis surgery for someone with a cleft palate. The dispute centers on whether to allow the bones of the face to reach full growth or to perform the operation before speech problems occur. The operation involves reconstructive surgery, and the child must see a team of specialists.

The specialist team usually includes a plastic surgeon, a dentist, an orthodontist and a speech therapist. People with cleft palates are also susceptible to ear infections, so an audiologist will also be part of the team. There will also be a social worker or psychologist involved after or before the surgery to help with emotional and social issues.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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