A cleft palate is a gap in the roof of the mouth. It can be found by itself as the only medical condition, it can be part of a cleft lip and palate or it can be part of a syndrome. It happens because the palate is formed from several different pieces that normally join together in the center of the palate early in the pregnancy – eight to 10 weeks from conception. Occasionally, these pieces do not join at all, or they can start to join but stop before the palate is fully formed, like a half-closed zipper.
The palate has two main parts – a hard bone portion that is in the front half of the palate and a floppy soft part in the back half of the palate. If you run your tongue along the roof of your mouth from your teeth backwards, you will feel that the front part is hard, because there is bone under this part of the palate, and the back part is soft because only small muscles are present within this portion. If there is a cleft of the palate, the result is that the two sides of the palate have a gap between them. A complete cleft palate means the gap extends from just behind the front teeth all the way through the back of the palate, so all of the bony and soft parts are involved. An incomplete cleft palate means that at least some of the bone portion of the palate is intact, and usually, it is only the soft, floppy back portion of the palate that has the cleft.
Cleft palate is important to discover and treat because the palate is vital for several key areas of a child’s development – from feeding to speaking and even hearing. Having a cleft palate can affect the way these develop, so we consider it essential that a child with a cleft palate is cared for through a multidisciplinary approach from birth to adulthood by a craniofacial team, like we offer here at Children’s Health℠.