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During early pregnancy separate areas of a child’s face develop individually and then join together, including the left and right sides of the roof of the mouth and lips. However, if the sections don’t meet the result is a cleft. If the separation occurs in the upper lip, the child is said to have a cleft lip.
A completely formed lip is important not only for a normal facial appearance but also for sucking and to form certain sounds made during speech. A cleft lip is a condition that creates an opening in the upper lip between the mouth and nose. It looks as though there is a split in the lip. It can range from a slight notch in the colored portion of the lip to complete separation in one or both sides of the lip extending up and into the nose. A cleft on one side is called a unilateral cleft. If a cleft occurs on both sides, it is called a bilateral cleft.
A cleft in the gum may occur in association with a cleft lip. This may range from a small notch in the gum to a complete division of the gum into separate parts. A similar defect in the roof of the mouth is called a cleft palate.
The palate is the roof of your mouth. It is made of bone and muscle and is covered by a thin, wet skin that forms the covering inside the mouth. You can feel your own palate by running your tongue over the top of your mouth. Its purpose is to separate your nasal cavity from your mouth. The palate has an extremely important role during speech because when you talk it prevents air from blowing out of your nose instead of your mouth. The palate is also very important when eating; it prevents food and liquids from going up into the nose.
As in cleft lip, a San Francisco cleft palate occurs in early pregnancy when separate areas of the face develop individually and do not join together properly. A cleft palate occurs when there is an opening in the roof of the mouth. The back of the palate is called the soft palate and the front is known as the hard palate. A cleft palate can range from just an opening at the back of the soft palate to a nearly complete separation of the roof of the mouth (soft and hard palate).
Sometimes a baby with a cleft palate may have a small chin and a few babies with this combination may have difficulties breathing easily. This condition may be called Pierre Robin sequence.
Since the lip and palate develop separately, it is possible for a child to be born with a cleft lip, palate or both. Cleft defects occur in about 1 out of every 800 babies.
Cleft lip surgery is usually performed when the child is about ten years old. The goal of surgery is to close the separation, restore muscle function, and provide a normal shape to the mouth. The nostril deformity may be improved as a result of the procedure, or may require a subsequent surgery.
A cleft palate is initially treated with surgery safely when the child is between 7 to 18 months old. This depends on the individual child and his/her own situation. For example, if the child has other associated health problems, it is likely that the surgery will be delayed.
The major goals of surgery are to:
There are many different techniques that surgeons will use to accomplish these goals. The choice of techniques may vary between surgeons and should be discussed between the parents and the surgeon prior to surgery.
The cleft hard palate is generally repaired between the ages of 8 and 12, when the cuspid teeth begin to develop. The procedure involves placement of bone from the hip into the bony defect, and closure of the communication from the nose to the gum tissue in three layers. It may also be performed in teenagers and adults as an individual procedure, or combined with corrective jaw surgery.
After the palate has been fixed children will immediately have an easier time swallowing food and liquids. However, in about one out of every five children that have the cleft palate repaired, a portion of the repair will split, causing a new hole to form between the nose and mouth. If small, this hole may result in only an occasional minor leakage of fluids into the nose. If large, however, it can cause significant eating problems, and most importantly, can even affect how the child speaks. This hole is referred to as a “fistula,” and may need further surgery to correct.