Simply speaking, a “cleft” is any kind of discontinuity or a gap. If the upper lip of a child at birth presents with a break on one or both sides, it is commonly said to be a cleft lip or harelip. If a similar gap is present on the hard or soft palate (the roof of the mouth), it is termed as cleft palate. This presents as the lip/palate being present in 2 or 3 parts rather than the usual single unit. Clefting happens due to the non-fusion of the structures that form them.

The children present with very distinct problems ranging from inability to speak certain words, having a nasal twang in their voice, difficulty swallowing or regurgitation through the nose during swallowing, breathing difficulties, frequent ear infections, and crowded teeth. These are just the physical issues attached to cleft patients, but I have seen a lot of cases where children suffer from severe psychological stress and an inferiority complex due to their appearance or speech problems.

The problem is compounded by the fact that it happens quite frequently, the incidence being 1 out of every 700 children born per year. It is more common in boys (2 times), Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans. The CDC reports that females who smoke or are are under certain drugs (antiepileptic, sugar lowering, etc.) have increased chances of giving birth to children having a cleft. Research studies have proved that the chances of the child developing cleft is lowered if the pregnant female is supplemented with multivitamins containing Folic Acid, both before and during pregnancy.

The good news is that together with the help of a pediatrician and a plastic surgeon, this condition is completely treatable. Cleft lip/palate is a congenital abnormality (present since birth) and should be reported to the child specialist as soon as noticed. Ideally, treatment for cleft lip should be conducted by 12 months of age and for cleft palate by 18 months of age. Parent support and doctors endeavors with timely intervention have shown miraculous results. After all, every child has the right to be normal.

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