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Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

By

Simeon A. Boyadjiev Boyd

, MD, University of California, Davis

Last full review/revision Sep 2022| Content last modified Sep 2022
CLICK HERE FOR THE PROFESSIONAL VERSION
Topic Resources

A cleft is an opening that can form in the lip (cleft lip), roof of the mouth (cleft palate), or both if the tissue does not join together completely during pregnancy. Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects.

  • Cleft lip is a separation of the upper lip, usually just below the nose.

  • Cleft palate is a split in the roof of the mouth (palate) resulting in an abnormal passageway into the nose.

Cleft lip and cleft palate often occur together. They are the most common birth defects of the skull and face, affecting about 2 of every 1,000 babies.

Both environmental and genetic factors may be involved in the formation of a cleft lip or cleft palate. The mother's use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs while pregnant may increase the risk of having a baby born with a cleft lip or cleft palate. Having one child born with a cleft lip or cleft palate increases the risk of having a second child with this kind of birth defect.

Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate: Defects of the Face

Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate: Defects of the Face

Cleft lip is disfiguring and prevents infants from closing their lips around a nipple. Cleft palate interferes with eating and speech and increases the risk of ear infections.

Diagnosis of Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

  • Physical examination

  • Genetic testing

Doctors usually can identify the defects during a physical examination.

A baby who has a cleft lip or palate should be evaluated by a geneticist. A geneticist is a doctor who specializes in genetics (the science of genes and how certain qualities or traits are passed from parents to offspring). Genetic testing of a sample of the baby's blood may be done to look for chromosome and gene abnormalities. This testing can help doctors determine whether a specific genetic disorder is the cause and rule out other causes.

Treatment of Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

  • Surgery

Before surgery, several options are available to help infants eat better, depending on the deformity. Options include the use of specially designed bottle nipples, a dental device that can temporarily seal the roof of the mouth so infants can suckle better, a feeder that can be squeezed to deliver formula, and an artificial palate that can be molded to the top of the infant's mouth.

Cleft lip and cleft palate are corrected with surgery. Timing of the surgery depends on the deformity and on the infant. For a cleft palate, a two-stage procedure is often done. The cleft lip, nose, and soft palate (the smooth soft back part of the palate) are repaired at age 3 to 6 months. Then the hard palate (the ridged hard front part of the palate) is repaired at age 15 to 18 months.

Dental and orthodontic treatment, speech therapy, and counseling may be needed when the child is older.

Because abnormal genes may be involved in the formation of a cleft lip or cleft palate, affected families may benefit from genetic counseling.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: CLICK HERE FOR THE PROFESSIONAL VERSION
CLICK HERE FOR THE PROFESSIONAL VERSION
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