Problem-Solving with Catherine: NICU Infant with NAS/NOW and Cleft Palate

Cleft Palate & Cleft Lip in Babies: Signs, Causes & Treatment

Question: I have a patient in our NICU with a left sided cleft palate and lip. The patient developed ulcers on the exposed palatal shelf, which are suspected to be due to “mechanical trauma” from feeding. We we’re initially using Dr. Browns specialty valve bottle. We switched to the Haberman bottle to see if this improved the situation, but they did not heal and seem to become more irritated as he feeds more.  We have now stopped feeding and plan to re-assess once the sores have healed. The patient has shown ability to safely feed with both the bottle systems we’ve used thus far and loves to eat!

I am being asked if there is a different bottle system that may prevent “friction” against the palate. I’m not sure a different bottle system would make a difference but have never come across this situation before. I’m having trouble finding any research regarding feeding-related ulcers in cleft palate cases. Dermatology has been consulted and agrees it is likely feeding related. Have you come across this before or have any suggestions that may prevent further irritation of these areas??

Catherine’s Answer: I too have seen this unfortunately, though it is not a common co-existing issue for most infants I have followed with a cleft palate (both in the newborn Nursery and in the NICU). My initial thought is that it is uncommon for an isolated cleft in an infant admitted to NICU to delay discharge by a month; if there is an isolated cleft, most infants with proper support become full PO feeders within about 48 hours, in my experience.  It makes sense as I then read your follow-up info, that the co-occurring co-morbidity of what sounds like NAS/NOW may be further complicating the provocation and persistence of the ulcers. Is the infant preterm as well?

Things I am thinking about. Both prematurity and h/o NAS/NOW with sequelae, potential other co-morbidities, and how the infant is being fed could all be factors.

Optimal motor learning in utero is adversely affected by preterm birth, regardless of the cleft. That makes the infant’s adaptability to the nuances of sucking and feeding more precarious. If there is any increased WOB relating to prematurity, that may interfere with a functional sucking pattern (adaptive behavior to stop flow to allow for a breath). State dysregulation, if present, may predispose a well-intentioned caregiver to “passively assist” or prod the infant with could create further friction.

Also, the infant’s oral-motor integrity that underpins sucking may be altered due to a tongue which lacks good midline stability for stripping; this is not uncommon in the setting of cleft palate. It may be due to lack of motor learning in utero. In utero, there is the likelihood that the tongue “stabilized in the clefted space” instead of the typical intrauterine tongue-palate contact that builds midline stability during sucking and swallowing of amniotic fluid. Does that make sense? For the typical fetus, that motor learning is why feeding emerges apparently effortlessly in the typical newborn. The presence of the cleft in utero creates an altered sensory-motor plan that then impacts function.

This would then potentially lead to a loose and disorganized latch and seal of the tongue on the nipple. If the caregiver doesn’t actively stabilize the nipple in midline (which best supports effective compression for fluid transfer), there can be friction created by repeated attempts of the tongue to latch. As Lauren suggested, stabilizing the nipple in midline can help the infant organize and achieve a stable latch that recues friction. I have heard some bedside caregivers suggest putting the nipple in the clefted area during sucking; assuring this isn’t happening will avoid some undue friction, as well promote more normal oral-motor patterns.

I would also suspect that a co-morbidity of NAS/NOW could further predispose the infant to disorganized sucking pattern that creates more friction due to less stable lingual contact with nipple. State neuro-dysregulation common in infants with NAS/NOW may provoke disorganization that further complicates potential for friction.

If there are co-occurring co-morbidities structures (mandibular hypoplasia, tethered oral tissues) that can also affect lingual patterns at rest and with function. Unclear if this is a concern with this infant.

Multiple potential factors to consider. Depending on the “why” that you determine applies to this unique infant, possible interventions might include: introduce post-feeding oral cares that maintain mucosa for future repairs and minimize dryness (our maxillofacial surgeon asks caregivers to sweep the intraoral structures with EBM or sterile water to clean off any formula and optimize tissue hydration for ease of future suturing). Stay with one feeding system for motor learning (Dr Brown’s best allows infant-guided feeding as it cannot be squeezed by well-intentioned caregivers). Continue to work closely with nursing and family via guided participation (during some PO feedings for one-to-one learning) re: stabilizing nipple in midline and why, avoiding prodding, using infant guide rooting response to help infant optimize tongue placement at the start, provide required swaddling and stability and vestibular/tactile input that promotes state regulation, discuss benefits of lanolin-based cream with pediatric dermatologist who is following and neonatologist, honor infant’s disengagement.

This can be challenging, as many caregivers have their own approaches that may not be optimal for this unique infant. Maybe a neo or APRN can work with you, and you can be present at rounds for a few consecutive days, and have a few key nurses on each shift that “get it” and perhaps become the infant’s primary nursing team to support continuity of care and partnering with ST.

I hope this is helpful. Good he has you in his corner.


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