During the early stages of fetal development, the mouth and lips form as two sides before coming together in the middle. Sometimes, the sides of the mouth or lip fail to join properly, resulting in a split in the lip, roof of the mouth, or both. This split is known as a cleft and is a common birth defect. A baby can have a cleft lip, a cleft palate, or both. A cleft palate is a more severe birth defect; a baby born with a cleft palate is unable to eat normally due to the split at the roof of the mouth and requires special feeding bottles and devices. Children who suffer from a cleft lip or palate are susceptible to ear infections, hearing problems, and dental issues.
Successfully treating a cleft lip or palate requires a team of dedicated medical and dental professionals of varying specialties. It is very common to expect an oral surgeon, speech therapist, ear specialist (otolaryngologist) and an orthodontist to be involved in cleft lip and palate treatment. Other specialists may also be involved, depending on the severity of the patient’s condition.
Most of the time, multiple procedures are needed to correct a cleft lip and palate. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon is uniquely qualified to be involved in most of these procedures because of their specialized understanding of the delicate structures of the face, as well as oral and facial reconstruction.
An infant with only a cleft lip may receive surgical treatment when they are about three months of age. Since surgical treatment of a cleft palate is more extensive and may require additional procedures, it is common for the first surgery to take place between six and twelve months of age.
Surgical treatment of a cleft lip and palate vary due to the patient’s condition. Additional procedures for a cleft lip and palate may be necessary when the child is around eight years of age, and possible surgeries thereafter may also be recommended to restore facial function and/or aesthetics.