Helping children who were born with cleft palate to speak clearly

Around one in 700 babies in the UK is born with a cleft lip and/or palate, which means they have a gap, or a split, in the upper lip and/or the roof of the mouth. Babies normally have surgery to close the gap and improve the appearance of the face. Despite this, many go on to have communication problems, because of difficulties learning how to speak clearly.

Dr Joanne Cleland, of the University of Strathclyde, and Lisa Crampin, Glasgow Dental Hospital and School are investigating whether ultrasound scans help when diagnosing and treating children’s speech problems. Learning how to speak clearly would be life changing for children with severe speech problems.

How are children’s lives affected now?

Every day in the UK, on average three babies are born with a cleft lip and/or palate, which is the most common facial abnormality at birth.

Despite having surgery, many of these children have ongoing problems with their speech. Some can find it hard to speak in a way that’s easy for other people to understand.

Dr Cleland says: "Normally, when a speech therapist assesses a child to diagnose the problem, they listen to the child speaking and write down the errors they hear. Unfortunately though, children with a cleft palate may have speech errors that cannot easily be distinguished by ear, which can make it difficult to choose the right treatment. With the wrong treatment, errors may become more deeply ingrained in children’s speech.

"Speech problems can have negative effects on a child’s life, including their education and social development."

How could this research help?

"Firstly, we aim to find out whether we can use ultrasound to diagnose speech errors in around forty eight children who were born with a cleft lip and/or palate," Dr Cleland says. "If we can, speech therapists would soon be able to incorporate this use of ultrasound into routine practice."

The technique involves placing a small ultrasound scanner under each child’s chin so that therapists, and indeed the children themselves, can see how the tongue moves during speech in real time on a computer screen.

"We are also running a trial with eight of the children to see if we can use ultrasound in speech therapy to help children correct their speech," Dr Cleland added. "Larger trials would be needed, but if successful as a therapy, ultrasound may one day help more children who were born with a cleft lip and/or palate to experience the life-changing benefits that learning how to speak clearly can bring."