Submucous Cleft Palate

What Is a Submucous Cleft Palate?

A cleft palate (PAL-it) is a birth defect in which the muscles and tissues in the roof of the mouth don't form properly when a baby is developing in the womb. In a submucous (sub-MYOO-kus) cleft palate (SMCP), the muscles of the palate don't form properly, but the tissue (mucous membrane) that lines the roof of the mouth does and is intact.

A typical cleft palate is noticed when a baby is born. Because the cleft in SMCP is under the tissue, it's harder to see.

What Causes Submucous Cleft Palate?

Doctors don't always know why the muscles don't form as they should in the unborn baby's palate. SMCP happens in about 1 in 1,200 babies.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Submucous Cleft Palate?

All newborns have an oral exam soon after they're born. But a submucous cleft palate might not be found during this exam because they're harder to see. Some are not diagnosed until a baby has feeding problems or a child is old enough to speak.

Doctors and parents might notice these symptoms in a child with an SMCP:

  • trouble feeding as an infant (taking a long time to feed, liquid coming through the nose, etc.)
  • chronic ear infections and effusions (fluid buildup behind the eardrum)
  • speech sound errors
  • speech problems that make the child hard to understand
  • hypernasality ("nasally sounding" speech)
  • nasal air emissions (hearing air leak out the nose during speech)

Hypernasality and nasal air emissions are signs of velopharyngeal (vee-low-fair-en-JEE-ul) dysfunction (VPD). This happens because the soft palate does not close tightly against the back of the throat during speech, which lets air and sound escape through the nose.

An oral exam of a child with a SCMP may show:

  • a split in the uvula (called a bifid uvula). The uvula (YOO-vyuh-luh) is the small, bell-shaped bit of flesh hanging at the back of the throat, in the middle of the soft palate.
  • a bluish tint to the tissue along the soft palate (called zona pellucida)
  • a notch in the back of the hard palate

How Is Submucous Cleft Palate Diagnosed?

If a submucous cleft palate isn't found in a newborn exam, a doctor might not find the problem until:

  • a baby has feeding problems
  • a child begins talking and is hypernasal

The doctor will refer the child to a cleft and craniofacial team for a full evaluation. This team includes:

  • a speech-language pathologist (or speech therapist), who will listen for hypernasality and other signs of SMCP
  • a surgeon, who will do a full oral exam
  • other care providers who have specialized training in cleft palate

So that the team gets a better picture of the mouth and palate, a child might have these tests:

  • a nasopharyngoscopy (nay-so-fair-en-GOS-kuh-pee): The doctor inserts a flexible tube called a scope through the nose to see the back of the throat and how the palate moves during speech.
  • a videofluoroscopy (vid-ee-oh-flore-AH-skuh-pee): The doctor uses X-rays to see how the palate moves during speech from a side view.

The results from these exams will help the team create a treatment plan.

How Is Submucous Cleft Palate Treated?

The problems caused by a submucous cleft palate vary from child to child. Some can have speech problems and many ear infections, while others have no symptoms or speech problems.

Children with SMCP fall into one of these four categories:

  1. No surgical repair needed, no speech therapy needed.
  2. Surgical repair needed, no speech therapy needed.
  3. No surgical repair needed, speech therapy needed.
  4. Surgical repair needed, speech therapy needed.

An SMCP that doesn't affect a child's speech usually is watched carefully by the care team to make sure it doesn't cause problems as the child grows. 

Kids who have more serious symptoms (like hypernasality or nasal air emissions) usually will have their palate corrected with surgery.

Children with "cleft palate speech" usually benefit from speech-language therapy to help correct their speech sound errors. Also, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist can treat related ear problems — for instance, doing ear tube surgery to drain fluid from the middle ear, prevent future ear infections, and help hearing.

What Else Should I Know?

Most kids who have a submucous cleft palate should not have an adenoidectomy. This procedure to remove the adenoids can put them at risk for velopharyngeal dysfunction because it creates more space between the soft palate and the back of the throat.

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