At a baby’s birth, the joyous parents are often asked by friends and family “Is the baby okay?” Most often the answer is a happy “Yes.” Sadly, though, a birth defect often brings a different answer.
One such defect of the mouth and face is a cleft, a noticeable tissue gap in the upper lip, the roof of the mouth (palate), the nose, or — rarely — the cheek or eye areas. Clefts are the most common form of birth defect: in the United States alone, 1 in 700 babies are born with a cleft of the lips or palate.
Clefts can be complete with no normal tissue fusion or incomplete with some fusion. They’re thought to be caused by dietary deficiencies or exposure to toxic substances or infection while the mother is pregnant. Facial clefts may affect only one side of the face (“unilateral”) or both sides (“bilateral”).
Clefts have long been a cause of both physical and emotional stress with no apparent remedy. That changed in the 1950s when a U.S. Navy surgeon, Dr. Ralph Millard, realized the tissue intended to fill the gap was already present, but distorted by the cleft. He developed procedures to “rearrange” the tissues to their normal position.
Since then, those procedures have advanced and become standardized. Treatment typically begins with an initial procedure on the lip at about 3-6 months of age, followed by palate repair at 6-12 months and possible follow-up procedures as the face and jaws develop. Along the way, the surgical team’s efforts are complemented by the work of dentists and orthodontists to ensure good dental health and proper bite development while the jaw continues to grow.
Today, this serious defect that once brought a lifetime of physical and psychological trauma has become highly treatable. While the treatment road isn’t easy for a child and their family, the destination promises both a normal life and a normal smile.
If you would like more information on the treatment of cleft lips and palates, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Cleft Lip & Cleft Palate.”