Cleft lips and cleft palates are birth differences that occur when certain body parts and structures do not develop properly during a pregnancy. It is estimated that, worldwide, a baby is born every three minutes with a cleft – however, many people are still unfamiliar with the condition and the challenges that surround it.
Here Susannah Schaefer, CEO of the international children’s charity Smile Train, discusses some of the key facts that everyone should know about clefts.
A CLEFT LIP IS DIFFERENT FROM A CLEFT PALATE
Susannah says: “A lot of people mistakenly assume that cleft lip and cleft palate are the same. A cleft lip occurs when the lip does not fuse together properly during foetal development. A cleft palate is a hole or opening in the roof of the mouth (made up of both hard and soft palate).”
CLEFTS ARE MUCH MORE THAN A COSMETIC CONCERN
“It is often assumed that cleft lip and palate are purely cosmetic concerns, however, this is certainly not the case. When left untreated, clefts can lead to serious health and survival issues, as babies born with clefts, especially across much of the developing world, will often struggle with physical problems such as the ability to eat, breath, and speak properly.
“Cleft surgery, and related cleft treatment, is therefore extremely important for a child to take in the required nutrition they need, for proper speech development, and to help alleviate issues with breathing.”
CHILDREN BORN WITH CLEFTS CAN FIND IT HARD TO BE ACCEPTED WITHIN THEIR COMMUNITY
Heartbreakingly, Susannah adds: “Many people are surprised to learn that, in some developing countries, children with untreated clefts are shunned by their communities. For example, many children born in Uganda with a cleft are given the name ‘Ajok’, which translates to ‘cursed by God’, with some newborns abandoned or senselessly mistreated because of their facial differences.”
CLEFT LIP AND PALATE CAN BE EASILY TREATED WITH SURGERY
There is good news. “Reconstructive surgery for cleft lip and palate has evolved over more than half a century, and modern techniques and procedures have come a long way,” Susannah explains. “Most experts agree that cleft lips should generally be repaired 3-6 months after birth. Cleft palates typically can be repaired between 9 and 18 months of age, but most surgeries, even at later ages, are still expected to be successful.”
CLEFT CARE DOESN’T STOP AFTER SURGERY
She says: “Reconstructive surgery is a very important part of the cleft repair process, but it’s not the only one. After surgery, some patients may experience challenges with hearing, speech delay, and problems with oral health, which can complicate their recovery process.
“At Smile Train, our comprehensive cleft care programmes include essential treatments beyond cleft repair surgery, such as nutritional support, orthodontic care, dental care, psychological services, and speech services. This care helps to ensure long-term, successful rehabilitation for cleft patients, thereby improving their quality of life and wellbeing.”