When a child is developing during gestation, the roof of the mouth (also called the palate) forms by bony plates coming together. Sometimes, these plates do not join, leaving the child with an opening in the roof of the mouth that connects to the nasal cavity. This condition is called a cleft palate. A cleft can occur in either the hard palate (the bony part of the roof of mouth towards the teeth) or the soft palate (the softer part of the roof of the mouth, made up of muscle and soft tissue and located toward the back of the mouth). Clefts can also occur in the lip, causing a split in the child’s upper lip.
Clefts are usually fixed by surgery performed while the child is still young. However, clefts can cause problems in speech production both before and after these operations. An opening in the hard palate can allow air to escape through the nose during speech, creating voice with a nasal quality. The cleft may also create atypical patterns of tongue placement and speech production; since the child may become habituated to this type of speech, these patterns can persist even after the cleft has been fixed. For example, it is common for children with clefts to substitute sounds which require the tongue to make contact with the roof of the mouth (like ‘t’ and ‘d’) with sounds which require no such contact (like ‘k’ and ‘g’).
In cases in which the child’s speech production is affected, a speech-language pathologist will usually provide therapy to help improve speech production. The child’s particular pattern of speech difficulties will be assessed by the speech-language pathologist, who will then design a program to assist the child in learning patterns of speech to make their communication more intelligible. The amount of time needed to remediate the child’s speech depends on the type and placement of the cleft and the resulting severity of the speech difficulty.
In developing countries where access to healthcare may be limited, children born with clefts often do not receive the surgery they need, leaving the child to struggle with social, communication, and feeding difficulties. Smile Train is a not-for-profit organization which provides free corrective surgery to children with clefts in developing countries. To learn more about Smile Train and what you can do to help, check out their website: http://www.smiletrain.org.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a communication disorder, contact Speech Associates of New York today to find a professional speech-language pathologist who can help you communicate to your fullest. Remember, early intervention is the key to maintaining and developing strong communication skills.