Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

What is cleft lip and cleft palate?

Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects. They are also known as orofacial clefts. The word cleft means split or break. Cleft lip is an opening in the upper lip and nose. Cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth (palate).

This is a rare condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Babies can have a cleft lip, cleft palate, or both. A unilateral cleft affects one side of the lip or palate. A bilateral cleft affects both sides of the lip or palate.

Symptoms of cleft lip and cleft palate

The major symptom is the presence of the cleft at birth. Children who have clefts often have other health issues. These are related to their teeth, eating, hearing, and speech.

What causes cleft lip and cleft palate?

Cleft lip and cleft palate are defects that occur in pregnancy. A baby’s facial features develop in the first trimester (3 months). The lips form first, followed by the mouth and palate. Clefts occur if the tissues and cells don’t form right. Cleft lip and cleft palate can occur alone. They also can be part of another condition or syndrome.

The cause of these clefts is unknown. Doctors believe it’s due to factors from genetics and the environment. Birth defect studies by the CDC found factors that could play a part. Use of tobacco, drugs, or alcohol can increase the risk. Diabetes and certain medicines, like for epilepsy, also can have an effect.

How is cleft lip and cleft palate diagnosed?

Typically, cleft lip and cleft palate are diagnosed at birth. Sometimes your doctor can see it on a routine ultrasound. This is an imaging test done throughout your pregnancy.

Can cleft lip and cleft palate be prevented or avoided?

You cannot prevent or avoid these birth defects. The exact cause of them is unknown. It is likely due to a mix of genetic and environmental factors. You can avoid tobacco, drugs, and alcohol to lower your risk. Talk to your doctors about this and other ways to help reduce the chance of birth defects.

Cleft lip and cleft palate treatment

The treatment for cleft lip and cleft palate depends on a few key factors. These include the type of cleft and your baby’s overall health. Clefts can create other health problems, like speech and dental concerns. You should work with your main doctor to form a cleft health care team. The group will contain doctors and nurses from all the related areas. You also can search for special cleft teams and centers throughout the United States.

Babies who have a cleft lip, cleft palate, or both will need some type of surgery. The CDC suggests cleft lip surgery within several months to 1 year of birth. Surgery for a cleft palate can occur up to 18 months of age.

Several groups can help you pay for these expenses. These include the Cleft Palate Foundation (CPF), Cleft Advocate, and FACES: The National Craniofacial Association.

Living with cleft lip or cleft palate

Over time, most children need added treatment to manage their related issues. This is another reason to have a cleft team that you know well and are happy with. Some follow-up problems include:

  • Ear tubes, for hearing loss or fluid buildup.
  • Dental care, for any teeth or mouth issues.
  • Speech therapy, for language difficulties.
  • General counseling, for emotional well being. Doctors also recommend counseling for parents and other family members. The condition affects everyone. It is important to talk with doctors on how to best manage it.

Adults with cleft lip or cleft palate may have some lasting effects. In general, they live normal and healthy lives. You do have a chance of passing the birth defect to your children. This is a low percentage though, as most cleft cases are random. You can get genetic testing to learn more about this.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Will my child always have issues related to their cleft lip or cleft palate?
  • If I have cleft lip or cleft palate, what is the chance of my children having it?
  • If one child has it, what is the chance of future children having it?