How does a cleft palate affect communication development?
Speech therapy focuses on two main goals for young kids with cleft palate. First, we want to improve speech intelligibility, or how well others understand a child. Second, we want to closely monitor the little one to make sure their palate works well for speech.
Goal 1: Improving intelligibility
When we talk about improving intelligibility, we want to help kids communicate clearly to express their wants and needs. To reach this goal for kids with clefts, articulation therapy often focuses on teaching placement for specific sounds. Because the cleft palate reduces the baby’s ability to practice pressure build up for speech sounds, some kids with cleft palate mislearn how to make consonant sounds. Instead of making consonants in the mouth, they may make these sounds, like /b/, /p/, /t/, and /s/, in the throat. Substituting throat sounds for mouth sounds makes a speaker hard to understand! And, if these errors become habits after many years of speaking, the habits become harder to change. Luckily, speech-language pathologists have many techniques to help correct these error patterns, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Goal 2: Monitoring how the palate functions for speech
This goal requires teamwork! It’s important to have ongoing communication between the family, the cleft palate team, and the therapist who sees the child for regular sessions (for more about how to choose a therapist for your child with cleft, read this article). The team SLP and treating SLP will both listen as your child says different pressure consonants to make sure there is no air leaking from the nose. When a child makes sounds in the throat, it’s impossible to know how well the palate works because they’ve learned a clever trick to avoid needing to use it. So the two goals of speech therapy for cleft palate go hand in hand—as a child learns to make more sounds, we can learn more about how the muscles of the palate work. And working palate muscles help support further articulation progress. The need for these two hands of therapy to work together leads to routine team check ups, and regular speech therapy sessions for many kids.