Examining for a cleft palate

Cite this article as:
Tessa Davis. Examining for a cleft palate, Don't Forget the Bubbles, 2014. Available at:

A 6 week old baby is referred with poor feeding. On examination you notice a cleft palate that has been previously undetected at the earlier babychecks. What is the best way to examine newborns in order to detect all cleft palates?

The RCPCH and NICE have released a joint consensus guideline (October 2014) on best practice for detecting cleft palate in neonates for any health professionals conducting newborn checks. This was done using systematic reviews of the literature and a Delphi consensus panel. Here we summarise the key points.

Palate examination: identification of cleft palate in the newborn. October 2014. RCPCH and NICE.

What is a cleft palate?

A cleft palate  is a birth condition caused by the roof of the mouth not joining up during early foetal development. The two halves of the palate don’t fuse properly, leaving an open space or ‘cleft’. This causes problems with feeding.

A delay in diagnosis can impact on growth and development, and will delay surgical intervention.

What prompted this guideline?

Delayed detection of cleft palate is a real concern in paediatrics, with delays impacting on families and their relationship with healthcare providers. It has also cost the NHS in the UK a significant cost over the last 10 years in legal claims due to delayed diagnosis.

The evidence cited suggests that delayed diagnosis is an international problem and is due to inadequate examination. Therefore, the working group was formed to determine best practice for examination.

In the UK, the rates of delayed detection (i.e. after the initial newborn check) are 13%.

The guidance recommends that cleft palate inspection should be performed as part of the routine newborn check, using the following strategies.

1. Visual inspection. The Delphi committee did discuss whether palpation had a role to play and there was no consensus agreement on using palpation as a diagnostic aid, mainly due to concerns about technique. The overall recommendation is that visual inspection is the best way to detect cleft palate and can be used alone.

2. Torch and tongue depression. The panel recommends using a tongue depressor and a torch to ensure an optimal view of the palate (hard at the front of the mouth and soft at the back of the mouth).

3. Missing some of the palate. If you aren’t able to see the whole palate during the examination, the parents should be informed of this. This examination should then be reattempted 24 hours later. There was no consensus about what would happen after that – it wasn’t felt that discharge from hospital should be delayed, but the baby should have further review.