By: Dr. Melanie Blumenthal, Stramski Children’s Developmental Center, Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital

July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month. Craniofacial anomalies occur in about one in two thousand births. Cleft lip and or palate is the most common craniofacial birth defect and represents about 15% of all birth defects. About 1 in 600 newborns in the U.S. are born with a cleft lip and or cleft palate.

Cleft lip and palate –can lead to feeding, speech, hearing, and dental development challenges. These issues pose significant hurdles for affected families. Early intervention and a multidisciplinary approach are vital for effectively managing these conditions.

The Craniofacial Program at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach provides comprehensive care to children with these conditions. Through Miller Children’s & Women’s Stramski Children’s Developmental Center, the Craniofacial Program specializes in congenital birth defects such as cleft lip/palate, skull or ear problems, and other craniofacial abnormalities ranging from mild to severe, often requiring surgery.

As an approved California Children’s Services (CCS) Special Care Center (SCC), our Craniofacial Program at the Stramski Children’s Developmental Center ensures that a specially designed multidisciplinary care team coordinates patient care based on their medical diagnosis, the complexity of their disease, and financial status. This ensures that those who need our specialized care the most have access.

The craniofacial care team is comprised of an extensive multidisciplinary group of experts, including a plastic/craniofacial surgeon, neurosurgeon, pediatric dentist, ear nose and throat surgeons, orthodontists, oral surgeon, speech-language therapists, nurse specialist, and social worker. Each member plays a crucial role in the holistic treatment of our patients.

Patients are followed by teams from birth through adulthood. At the craniofacial care team visits, patients and their families are seen by each specialist individually. After the patient visits, the team meets to coordinate the child’s pathway of care.

Surgery is often part of the treatment plan in a patient with a cleft lip and/or palate. Our team of skilled surgeons works closely with each family to develop a personalized treatment plan to repair the cleft, help improve hearing, and achieve the best cosmetic results. Often plastic surgery is done in coordination with ENT surgery. Surgery typically occurs within the first year of life, with additional procedures as needed during the child’s growth and development.

The initial surgery for cleft lip repair is usually performed when the baby is around 3 to 6 months old. This early intervention aims to restore the normal function and appearance of the lip. For cleft palate, the surgery is typically done when the child is between twelve to eighteen months old. It focuses on closing the opening in the roof of the mouth to improve feeding and speech development.

Children receive extensive follow-up care to monitor their progress and address any complications. This includes regular check-ups, speech therapy sessions through Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Cherese Mari Laulhere Children’s Village, and dental evaluations to support the child’s overall development and ensure they achieve the highest quality of life possible.

Our speech therapists and audiologists provide targeted interventions to help children develop clear speech and effective communication skills, with regular hearing assessments to address related issues. The care of pediatric dentists and orthodontists ensure early dental hygiene education and orthodontic treatments to maintain oral health and functional integrity of our patients’ teeth and jaws. Additionally, our psychologists and social workers offer counseling and support to help families cope with the emotional and social challenges of cleft lip and palate, including self-esteem issues, bullying, developmental concerns, and the stress experienced by parents and siblings.

By offering a comprehensive range of services, from surgical interventions to speech therapy and psychosocial support, the craniofacial care team ensures that each child receives individualized care tailored to their unique needs. The Craniofacial Program team is committed to walking with the families every step of the way, offering the best medical and supportive care throughout the entire treatment process.

Cleft Lip and Palate Awareness Month highlights the importance of specialized care for craniofacial conditions and promotes understanding and support within the community. Families affected by these conditions can reach out and learn more about the resources and support available by visiting I am lucky to work with such an amazing team. It is a privilege to meet, care for, and be inspired by our incredible patients and their families.