This common birth defect creates feeding challenges for infants.

Q: My newborn daughter has a cleft palate, and she struggles to feed well. Why is this difficult for her? 

A: Cleft lip and/or palate is the most common birth defect in the United States, affecting one of every 700 babies born. On average, 16 babies are born every day in this country with a cleft, and every other day, a new baby is born in Ohio with a cleft. For these infants, feeding can be challenging, which can cause stress and anxiety for a family in an infant’s early weeks.

Infants with cleft palate are unable to create the suction necessary to efficiently drink at the breast or from a standard bottle. Because the roof of the mouth is open (not fused together), the baby cannot seal off the mouth from the nose and create suction (negative pressure) to draw milk into his or her mouth when feeding. The baby works harder to feed, and then burns more calories than are taken in, which can place them at risk for growth or nutrition concerns.

Even when feeding appears to improve, infants with cleft palate require close monitoring of weight, growth and development in the first year of life. An expert cleft lip and palate team can make sure a baby is feeding well and growing appropriately, or identify if additional treatments are needed.

After palate repair surgery, a child’s cleft lip and palate team will also continue to monitor other aspects of development to ensure optimal health, developmental and psychosocial outcomes. For more information about the comprehensive services of the Cleft Lip and Palate Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital go to https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/specialties/cleft-lip-and-palate-center.

Always consult your child’s pediatrician concerning your child’s health.

For more pediatric health news parents can use, visit our blog: 700childrens.nationwidechildrens.org.

Adriane Baylis, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a speech scientist, craniofacial speech pathologist and director of the Velopharyngeal Dysfunction Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Lauren Madhoun, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and feeding specialist in the Speech Pathology Department at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

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