Cleft lip is a visible separation in the upper lip, and it's not unusual to see someone who had surgery as a child to correct it. Cleft palate, on the other hand, is a divided palate (the roof of the mouth), and because it is not outwardly visible unless the cleft extends to the lip, not a lot of people realize what effects it can have. Because the palate serves as a dividing line between the oral and nasal cavities, a cleft palate can have adverse effects on speech and hearing, and surgery is sometimes necessary to remedy the problem.
Often Means Problems With Nasal and Hearing Structures
Human faces are set up like this: you have your mouth, with the palate as the roof of the mouth, and above the palate is your nasal cavity. On each side of the nasal cavity, in the back, is an opening to the Eustachian tube, which connects the nasal cavity to the middle ear space.
A cleft palate means there's no solid floor to the nasal cavity. Drainage from the middle ear and increased infections in the middle ear are possible, and those infections can also cause hearing loss, at least temporarily, until the middle ear problem is solved. In young children, a repeated loss of hearing due to repeated ear infections can affect speech development, not to mention that fact that it can make an older child feel awful and cause them to miss school.
Speech Problems and Surgery
Cleft palates do not always cause speech problems; that depends on the location and severity of the cleft, as well as the sounds required in the language(s) the child is learning. A severe cleft running the length of the soft palate could affect velar sounds like /k/ and /g/, which obviously play major roles in English. Surgery may be the only way to fix this. On the other hand, if the child has a cleft but shows no trouble with velar sounds, and instead shows trouble with labial sounds (sounds made with the lips), then speech therapy would be recommended instead.
Interaction and Practice
It's important that the child be encouraged to talk as much as possible, given age and development level. Sometimes practice can take care of a lot of the speech issues surrounding a minor cleft. If the cleft is major and surgery is needed, the child will need encouragement to keep talking after healing from the surgery.
Your child will need to be evaluated by an ear-nose-throat doctor, speech pathologist, and possibly a plastic surgeon who specializes in pediatric plastic surgery. With the right team, your child can have the treatment he or she needs. To learn more, contact a medical center like Shriners Hospitals for Children – Cincinnati.