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The Importance of Treating Cleft Palate Around the World

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We talked to Monica Dominguez of Smile Train about the connection between oral health and cleft palates.

Monica dominguez-smile train

Monica Dominguez

Director of Global Oral Health Programs, Smile Train

Could you briefly explain what a cleft palate is, and any stats or facts related to how common the problem is across the globe?

A cleft lip or a cleft palate is an opening or split in the upper lip or roof of the mouth that occurs when developing facial structures in an unborn baby don’t close completely. This happens during the first trimester of pregnancy.


What are some of the unique oral health needs of youngsters who suffer from cleft palate?

Because clefts affect the structure of the mouth, gums, teeth, and nose, people with clefts are more likely to experience poor oral health. Even children who undergo cleft surgery are often at an increased risk for cavities, periodontal disease, missing or misplaced teeth, infections, and other oral health issues.

This affects their daily lives in many ways; how they speak, smile, taste, and eat, and how they convey their emotions and connect to those around them. Oral health defines so much about how they interact with the world.

For readers who aren’t familiar, what is Smile Train and what’s its mission?

Smile Train is the world’s largest cleft-focused organization. We provide training, funding, and resources to empower local medical professionals in 70+ countries to provide 100 percent-free cleft surgery, and other forms of essential cleft care in their own communities. Over the past 22 years, we have transformed the lives of more than 1.5 million children.

Why is it essential to raise awareness of cleft palate?

Children and adults with untreated clefts face so many challenges. If a baby can’t get adequate nutrition due to their cleft, it impacts their development and threatens their life. If a child can’t receive high-quality cleft surgery, it can affect their speech, their oral health, their hearing, their overall health, and their mental health. They may not attend school. They may struggle to find a job and build relationships within their community as an adult. It is important that they understand the causes and that cleft treatment is available for them. It’s important that every person with a cleft is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Awareness is crucial to creating this reality. 


What can families do to navigate care and treatment for their children with cleft palate?

Information is a powerful tool that will provide them with clarity and will help them prepare for the unique journey of having a child with a cleft in their family. It’s incredibly important for families to understand the stages of treatment and how they can actively be involved, as it will help children achieve the best treatment outcomes.

The local and global cleft community is also a powerful resource. Cleft treatment can also be stressful to a child and a family. It’s essential that families know they are not alone.

How rewarding is it to see the difference Smile Train makes in people’s lives?

It’s incredibly rewarding. We see this care as a human right and it’s our privilege to play a part in making it happen. Patients we supported twenty years ago are now surgeons, nurses, speech therapists, teachers, artists, advocates, parents, husbands, wives. Their stories remind us that everything is possible. Ultimately, it’s a team effort and takes us all — doctors, nurses, families, donors, volunteers, patients themselves. It truly is a community.


What else would you like to share with readers?

To learn more about Smile Train’s global efforts or to get involved, please visit and follow us on social media @SmileTrain.

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