Understanding Cleft Palate Surgery: What You Need To Know

Concerned mother getting information from doctor about cleft palate surgery in Montana

Although the majority of my time in plastic and reconstructive surgery has been domestic, it is the experience outside of Kalispell that has had the most impact on my life. Over my decades of practice, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the humbling opportunity to help reconstructive patients from around the globe. One of the highlights of my career to date is my relationship with the nonprofit organization ReSurge, working to provide free treatments to children in underserved countries.

Coming from a developed nation, it is an eye-opening experience to see the extent to which these developing countries lack access to basic healthcare. Children that are born with deformities and deviations are left untreated leading to a lifetime of physical, emotional, and often-times financial suffering. And, in some countries where these birth defects are highly stigmatized, they are often left to die. The gravity and extremity of this issue can be seen not only just as a doctor, but from any human with a heart.

While my travels abroad have exposed me to a full spectrum of reconstructive cases, cleft palate and cleft lip are indubitably two of the most common problems I see. While these conditions may be often misunderstood, there is no mistaking the impact cleft palate corrective surgery can bring for children abroad and right here in Montana.

What Is a Cleft Palate?

A cleft palate is a common congenital issue that involves an opening along the roof of the mouth. This opening can sometimes extend to the upper lip and nose, creating a visible gap known as a cleft lip. A baby with a cleft may have a cleft palate, a cleft lip, or both. Around 1 in 500 babies every year are born with a facial cleft. 

A cleft palate can be a dangerous condition for a young child as it can cause breathing, eating, and speech difficulties. The issue is typically detected during a newborn exam, and a doctor will recommend further treatment. 

Cleft Palate Causes

Cleft palate is caused when a baby’s mouth doesn’t develop properly during gestation. During the critical first 6 to 10 weeks of pregnancy, the bones and skin of a baby’s upper jaw fuse together and form the roof of the mouth. A cleft palate results when parts of the roof of the mouth fail to fuse completely. 

The exact causes of cleft palate are unknown; however, it’s thought to be a combination of factors that happen to be predominant in more impoverished areas of the world. Genetics, lack of prenatal nutrients, or exposure to harmful substances while pregnant can all impact the likelihood and severity of a cleft.

How To Fix a Cleft Palate

A doctor will often suggest a palatoplasty once the baby is around 6 months to 1 year old. This procedure aims to close the opening between the nose and the mouth and repair the muscles of the soft palate. During the surgery, the plastic surgeon will slowly close the cleft in layers and make incisions along the gumline to reduce tension. 

The procedure is performed under anesthesia and takes around 2 to 3 hours to complete. Most babies can return home after a few days of rest in the hospital. 

Some people incorrectly assume that cleft palate issues are only a problem in other, lesser-fortunate countries. But even here in the United States, around 6,800 babies are born each year with a facial cleft. Fortunately, most children are successfully treated with no lasting problems and go on to lead happy, healthy lives.

Unfortunately, it is those cases that go untreated that are left to face the confronting truth of their grave situation. It is my hope that by way of my work in Kalispell plastic surgery, ReSurge, and through my story that I can inspire others to help educate more people about cleft palate and cleft lip to lessen the stigma around the condition.

If you have a child or family member who has a cleft defect, I’m always happy to consult with them. Learn more about your plastic surgery options here in Kalispell by requesting a consultation or calling (406) 756-2241.

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