Oral and facial clefts are among the most common and heartbreaking of birth defects. Clefts make feeding or even breathing difficult and can affect speech development.
But there's one other profound effect: an “abnormal” face caused by a cleft can have devastating consequences for a person's self-image and social relationships.
About 1 in 700 U.S. babies are born with some type of visible gap or “cleft.” It can occur in their upper lip, soft and hard palate, nose or occasionally extending to the cheek or eye region. We typically classify clefts as “unilateral” (affecting only one side of the face) or “bilateral” (affecting both sides). We're not completely sure on the root causes, but research so far has uncovered links with the mother's possible exposure to toxic substances, nutrient or vitamin deficiencies, or infections during fetal development.
Taking steps during pregnancy to minimize these exposures is certainly helpful. But what can be done for children born with a cleft?
A great deal, thanks to the development of surgical repair techniques over the last century. The surgical approach relies on the fact that the tissues required to repair the cleft already exist. They're simply distorted by the cleft break.
Even so, the road to restoration is a long and arduous one. Lip repairs usually take place at 3-6 months of age; palate (roof of the mouth) clefts are undertaken at 6-12 months. As the child's jaw and mouth structure develops, further surgeries may be needed to match earlier repairs with development.
Cleft repairs also require a team of specialists including a maxillofacial (oral) surgeon, orthodontist and general dentist. The latter plays an important role during the process, ensuring the child maintains good dental health through prevention and treatment of disease and dental work for at risk teeth.
The road to a normal life is difficult — but well worth it. A repaired cleft vastly improves a child's health and well-being. Moreover, it restores to them something the rest of us might take for granted — a normal face and smile.