Having a baby born with a cleft lip or cleft palate — together know as orofacial clefts — is a stressful and unnerving experience for new parents, but there are options to help the child live a normal life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2,600 babies are born with a cleft palate and over 4,400 are born with a cleft lip in the United States each year. Those with cleft lip may or may not also have a cleft palate.
Children born with these conditions may have a number of problems with both speaking and hearing. There is often a higher than normal risk of ear infections, which can then result in hearing loss. More than 90% of children have at least one ear infection before the age of two; children with cleft palates or lips have an even higher risk of common ENT problems. They also have difficulty eating; at birth they cannot latch properly and bottles and teats need to be adapted to allow the baby to feed. Airway and breathing difficulties are rare but can occur especially in children with a combination of malformations called Pierre-Robin Sequence.
Fortunately, orofacial clefts are treatable, although it is recommended that surgery take place in the first 18 months of the the child’s life. Treatment generally takes some time, although according to the CDC about 20% of cleft cases can be resolved with one surgery. Some children will require several surgeries and other treatments even into adulthood. These also address other issues that might be present, including problems with the teeth.
While an initial diagnosis of cleft lip or palate can be overwhelming, the knowledge that care is possible and available and can assist the child to live a normal life can help parents come to terms with it.