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Cleft Palate

Conditions We Treat

Cleft palate is a term that describes a separation in the roof of the mouth. It happens when the tissue that makes up the roof of the mouth, called the palate, does not join completely before birth. The palate usually forms between the sixth and ninth weeks of pregnancy. The gap in the mouth can extend from the front of the mouth (hard palate) to the throat (soft palate) and may include the lip. A separation in the lip is called a cleft lip.

About 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate each year in the U.S. Boys are more likely to have a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate, but a cleft palate without a cleft lip is more common in girls. In the U.S., cleft palates also are most common among Native Americans and least common among African Americans.

Cleft Palate Diagnosis

Most cleft palates are noticed right away after birth. It may be diagnosed before birth through a routine ultrasound, but a cleft palate without a cleft lip is more difficult to see using ultrasound.

Cleft palate may be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. A baby is at a higher risk of being born with a cleft palate if the pregnant person:

  • Has diabetes
  • Has a family history of cleft palates
  • Is overweight during pregnancy
  • Smokes cigarettes, drinks alcohol or takes certain medicines during pregnancy

Cleft Palate Symptoms

A cleft palate that occurs without a cleft lip does not affect how the face looks, but it can affect other functions such as speaking and eating.

A cleft palate that only affects the soft palate (called submucous cleft palate) also does not affect appearance. Symptoms may include:

  • Chronic ear infections
  • Difficulty with feedings
  • Difficulty swallowing, with foods or fluids possibly coming out of the nose
  • Nasal sounding speech

Cleft Palate Surgery

Our team of specialists can usually correct a cleft palate with surgery. This procedure is often performed in the first 18 months of a baby’s life. When the child is under general anesthesia, the surgeon makes incisions on both sides of the cleft and draws the tissue and muscles together.

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