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Parents open up after photo of their baby with cleft lip and palate goes viral

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(NEW YORK) — When photographer Shannon Morton shared a baby photo to her business’s Facebook page, she had no idea that it would go viral.

“It was amazing,” Morton told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “I shared it, I think on Thursday. By Friday morning, I looked at it and I saw, ‘Oh my gosh. 5,000. Wow, that’s amazing.’ I looked at it an hour later and it had doubled. It was already at 10,000 likes and loves and shares … and then the comments started happening.”

The photo post, which included a picture of baby Sutton — who was born with a cleft lip and palate and is now 9 weeks old — has since garnered more than 728,000 likes and nearly 7,000 comments. It features the newborn with her eyes closed in what Morton calls an “angel pose.”

“So. Many. Smiley babies in the studio recently! This is sweet Sutton, the cutest little redhead! 👶🏻♥️” Morton wrote in the accompanying photo caption.

Sutton’s photo struck a chord and soon, other parents began to comment with photos and stories of their own children born with a cleft lip, palate or both.

“My little princess was born with a bilateral cleft thankfully her palet was intact. Me and dad assure her everyday that she is the most beautiful girl in the world and her personality is amazing,” one parent wrote alongside a photo of a young girl smiling for the camera.

Another Facebook user shared four sweet photos and added, “Such a beautiful baby 💕 our sweets is a cleft/palate baby also.”

“She’s beautiful,” one mother commented, adding, “as a cleft mama seeing her beautiful face just warms my heart!”

Neither Morton nor Sutton’s parents, Courtney and Gavin Gardner, expected such a big response from people online.

“It was a huge difference compared to what [Morton] normally posted and it was shocking, because I, up until that point, had been keeping my children off of my own personal social media accounts just for their protection. So I never anticipated it getting any attention at all, let alone the amount that it did or the kindness of the comments that it did,” Courtney Gardner told GMA.

Gavin Gardner, Sutton’s dad, added that all of it “was very surprising.”

“We didn’t expect that and of course, reading the comments, everyone had really wonderful things to say. Very encouraging. And I think the nicest thing to do is when people would share about their own stories if they had a child with cleft lip or cleft palate,” he said.

The Gardners told GMA Sutton was diagnosed at their 20-week ultrasound with right-sided unilateral cleft lip and palate. Cleft lip and palate are both birth defects that occur when a baby’s lip or palate does not develop properly during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In most cases, doctors don’t know why clefts form but approximately 1 out of 1,600 babies in the U.S. is born with both a cleft lip and palate each year, and 1 out of every 1,700 babies is born with a cleft palate. Additionally, 1 in every 2,800 babies is born with a cleft lip but not a cleft palate.

There are various treatments available for cleft lip and palate, including surgery, dental care and speech therapy.

Courtney Gardner told GMA Sutton is expected to receive her first surgery in March and then at least one more surgery after she turns 1. She will also get speech therapy.

The Gardners also said they’re grateful for the care their daughter has received so far at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, and said finding a community online has helped them through a journey they never imagined they would be on.

“During the pregnancy, I did join a support group on Facebook for cleft moms, which has been instrumental in helping those feelings and I’ve made a lot of really great friends from that and even met up with them and their babies in person. But to connect with people outside of that, from all around the world, was just nothing that we expected but was absolutely just lovely to have happen,” Courtney Gardner said.

Today, the Gardners are also sharing their daughter’s story through their own Facebook page called My Cleft Cutie.

“We started a Facebook page just to show others her journey, what it’s like and stuff like that and words of encouragement or cleft awareness,” Gavin Gardner explained.

The Gardners said they hope sharing will help shine a light on and offer support and encouragement to other expecting parents who may be going through what they had when they first heard Sutton had a cleft lip and palate.

“When you first get that diagnosis and you have six months to just stew on it and wonder what if, seeing other people and what their experiences were just helped my mind process things and and realize that this is something that we could absolutely handle, rather than let my worst fears take hold,” Courtney Gardner said.

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