Thursday, August 26, 2010

Focus on Special Needs...The Cleft Palate Baby

Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects that occur when the developing baby’s mouth does not form properly. In the case of cleft lip, a split is left in the tissue of the upper lip that may extend up into the nasal cavity. In cleft palate, the growth plates that form the roof of the baby’s mouth (palate) fail to close, leaving a crack or a large opening. The child may have a single split on one side of the mouth that ranges in size from a small indentation to a crevice that extends into the nose. Sometimes a child will have a cleft on both sides of the upper lip that can extend into the nose, creating a large gap in the child’s facial tissue.

Cleft lip and cleft palate can occur separately or together

My first experience with Cleft Palate came when I was only four years old.  My mother brought home my baby brother from the hospital.  He was a whopping 12 lb baby and there was something unusual about him.  He had a cleft lip and palate.  I still remember my mother's frustrations in trying to get him to take his bottle.  The milk spilling back out his nose!  Several surgeries later and he was just my "little" brother more noted for his large size than his facial features. 

Through my volunteer work with the Medical Advocacy Team, I had the opportunity to help host a baby with cleft palate from Haiti.  Little "Lena" arrived on U.S. soil at 5 months of age weighing in at a mere 5 lbs.  I had never seen such a fierce and tiny child!  Her wrists were smaller than my thumb.  Lena's odd "cleft smile" was actually a bit endearing! 

Typically closing a cleft lip and palate is done in two phases by a plastic surgeon.  The first surgery is to close the exterior lip and the second closes the opening in the roof of the mouth and gum line.  I am positive I am oversimplifying the process to a great degree! 
Baby Lena Before Surgery

I had the honors of hospital duty for Lena for the second surgery.  Amazingly she came out of surgery eager to eat.  Liquids and then semi-liquids had to be syringed into her mouth for several weeks while her palate was healing.  The change in her eating was amazing! 

Many children wait for families internationally due to being born with a cleft lip, palate or more commonly both. 

Baby Lena Post Surgery
In developing countries the surgeries needed for these children to thrive are unavailable.  In more developed countries parents may give up these children due to social stigma. 

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