Tips for Breastfeeding a Child With Cleft Palate or Lip

woman reading up on breastfeeding child with cleft lip palata

If your newborn was born with a cleft palate or lip, they're not alone. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 1 in 1,000 babies are born with some form of cleft, split or separation in the mouth or lip, which forms in utero. Breastfeeding a child with cleft palate or lip may be challenging, but it's not impossible. Learn about the feeding and oral care considerations for a baby with a cleft palate or lip.

The Effect of a Cleft Lip or Palate on Breastfeeding

Children born with a cleft palate may have difficulty breastfeeding because their connection with the breast may be weak, or they may not produce enough suction, as the Children's Hospital Colorado explains. Because of the physical split in their palate, milk or formula may also leak through their nostrils, causing them to take in less nutrients. However, though latching may prove difficult for babies with a cleft lip, many can breastfeed normally. The size of the cleft in the lip impacts how well a baby can create the suction needed in order to feed.

Tips for Breastfeeding Children With Cleft Palate or Lip

According to the Cleft Lip & Palate Association (CLAPA), there are several steps you can take to guide your baby to breastfeed successfully:

  • Work with a breast feeding specialist on positioning for the best suction for success.
  • Determine with a specialist when your child is ""dummy sucking"" — that is, when they're latched, but now swallowing — and when they're able to suck and swallow.
  • Use a nipple shield with a larger or different hole shape for better support.

Only rarely do doctors advise placing a feeding plate directly into your child's mouth. In these cases, the plate acts as a vacuum to better enable your child to suck and breastfeed. That said, there are varying opinions in the medical community about the use of these plates. It's possible that they can be used to start guiding the cleft to close prior to surgery, but these plates are not common, so you'll want to discuss this option with your doctor and seek out a specialist's advice.

Not all babies are able to breastfeed, but they can still get the nutrients they need. Per the CLAPA, depending on the size and position of the cleft, you may be able to use a bottle with a scoop or specially shaped nipple. On occasion, some may need to use feeding tubes.

Oral Hygiene and Cleft Palate or Lip

Maintaining your baby's oral hygiene is crucial. As the CLAPA notes, babies do not produce much saliva in the first one to two months of life. Therefore, it's important to wipe their mouth with a soft, clean cloth after feeding, taking special care of the sensitive tissue and area around the split.

For children with a cleft palate or lip, teeth can erupt crooked or sideways, making it more difficult to keep the areas clean. They are also more prone to bacteria build-up and tooth decay. Work with your dentist to create the best oral care plan, and ask them about any specific cleaning tools you can include in your child's daily oral care regimen.

Breastfeeding a child with cleft palate or lip may be possible with certain techniques, or you may try an alternate mode of feeding. Whether by breast, bottle or tube, you can take comfort knowing that there are many options to keep your child well fed.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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