A cleft palate is a birth defect in which the tissues of the roof of the mouth do not join properly. The opening may be in the soft palate, which is the tissue toward the back of the mouth, and/or in the hard palate, which is the bony front area of the mouth. In many cases, a child born with a cleft palate also has a cleft lip, which is a split or opening in the upper lip. Children born with clefts are at risk for ear infections, dental problems, and speech- and feeding-related disorders.
A cleft palate is a congenital condition that may be hereditary. Other cases of cleft palate may be caused by using alcohol or tobacco, or by taking certain medications, during pregnancy. A cleft palate can cause feeding and speech problems, and surgery is necessary to correct it.
Cleft palate surgery is usually performed between the ages of 9 and 12 months, after the palate has grown but before speech has begun. The child is put under general anesthesia, and the surgeon makes incisions on both sides of the cleft, creating flaps of tissue. The flaps are then stitched closed with absorbable stitches.
After cleft palate correction surgery, children go on to live relatively normal lives. Speech therapy may be required for children with residual muscle problems. Additional surgery is sometimes required to improve speech intelligibility or to repair a fistula, or hole in the palate.