A cleft palate occurs from a congenital deformity during gestation. Cleft palates are often accompanied by a cleft lip as well, and are the non-fusing of the two plates of the skull that form the roof of the mouth. Cleft palate occurs in 1 out of every 700 births worldwide.
Cleft palates can be of several varieties, either complete, which includes both the hard and soft palates and the lip, or incomplete, which results in a hole in the roof of the mouth. When addressed in early infancy, cleft palates can be repaired by surgery, allowing for minimal scarring.
Until recently, many children who had cleft palates and cleft lips (formerly called “harelips,” a term now considered derogatory) often developed psychosocial difficulties, due to ostracism and teasing. These psychosocial difficulties are in addition to the physical difficulties. Cleft palates may cause difficulty in feeding, as infants with this condition are unable to suck. In such a case, gravity feeding is recommended. Additional medical problems include difficulty with middle ear infections, which can lead to hearing loss.
The highest rates for cleft palate occur among Native Americans and Asians. Africans generally experience the lowest rates of occurrence. Notable individuals born with cleft palates include Tutankhamun, “Doc” Holiday (of O.K. Corral infamy), President Lincoln’s son Tad, and the actors Stacey Keach and Cheech Martin.