Cleft lip and palate are openings
or splits in the upper lip or roof of the mouth (palate). A child can be born with a
cleft lip, cleft palate, or both. Cleft lip and palate may be the only birth defects, or
they may happen with other defects.
A cleft lip may be as mild as a
notch of the lip. Or it may be as severe as a large opening from the lip to the
A cleft palate may leave an opening
that goes into the nasal cavity. Cleft palate is not as noticeable as cleft lip because
it is inside the mouth. The cleft may:
- Involve one or both sides of the
- Go from the front of the mouth or hard
palate to the throat or soft palate
- Include the lip
Cleft lip and cleft palate happen
when a baby develops in the womb. Researchers don’t know the exact cause of cleft lip
and palate. It can be caused by genes passed on from parents, as well as environmental
factors. Environmental factors include taking certain medicines during pregnancy,
smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy, infections, and too little vitamin B and
folic acid during pregnancy. Parents who have cleft lip, cleft palate, or both, or who
have other kids with the problem are at an increased risk of having babies with the
The symptoms of these problems can
be seen during the first exam by your baby’s healthcare provider. How much the lip or
palate differs from normal can vary. The symptoms can include:
- Lip does not close fully
- Roof of the mouth does not close
- Neither the lip nor the roof of the
mouth closes fully
A cleft lip and cleft palate can be diagnosed during pregnancy during
a routine ultrasound exam. Or they may be seen during the first exam by your baby’s
Both cleft lip and cleft palate can
be fixed with surgery.
lip. The first surgery for cleft lip is usually done before a baby is 1 year
old, but as early as possible.
Cleft palate. The first
surgery for cleft palate is usually done within the first 18 months after birth, but
again as early as possible.
Beyond the appearance of a cleft
lip, other possible complications include:
Feeding trouble. Feeding trouble happens more with cleft palate defects. Your baby may not be able to
suck properly because the roof of the mouth is not formed completely. Most babies
with cleft palate are not able to breastfeed. But they can be fed breastmilk with
special nipples and bottles.
Ear infections and hearing loss. Ear infections are often
caused by problems with the tubes that connect the middle ear to the throat
(eustachian tubes). Infections that come back again and again can then lead to
Speech and language delay. Muscles involved with speech
may not work well. This can lead to a delay in speech or odd speech. Talk with your
child’s healthcare provider about seeing a speech therapist.
Dental problems. The child may have problems with his or
her teeth. Your child may need to see an orthodontist. This is a dentist with special
training to treat teeth that are out of line and problems with the jaw.
Cleft lip and cleft palate can’t
always be prevented. But there are things you can do to reduce the risk. They
- Get a pre-pregnancy exam to make sure
you are healthy before you get pregnant.
- Get regular and complete prenatal care
- Take folic acid if you are trying to
- Take daily prenatal vitamins that
include folic acid during pregnancy.
- Don’t smoke.
- Don’t drink alcohol during
Consider genetic counseling if
other members of your family have had cleft lip and palate.
Your baby’s healthcare provider
will help you figure out how to best care for your baby.
The main concern for your baby is
good nutrition. Sucking is difficult because of the opening in the formed roof of the
A baby with a cleft lip, a cleft
palate, or both will have specific healthcare needs. What works for one child may not
work for another.
A baby with just a cleft lip
usually does not have trouble feeding. To help with feeding, try the following:
- Breastfeed if you can. It will take
extra time and patience. You may also pump your breastmilk and feed it to your
- Hold your baby in an upright
position to help him or her swallow and to keep milk from going into the
- Give feedings often, but keep them
small. This can help your baby get more calories and gain weight.
- Try different types of bottles and
nipples to find ones that work for your child. Many types are available for babies
with a cleft lip. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider about which type is
best for your child.
A baby with a cleft palate will
need extra support with feeding. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider to find
out the best way to feed your baby.
Give breastmilk if you can. Regardless of how severe the
cleft is, your baby will need extra support with feeding. Although most
babies with cleft palate can’t breastfeed, some babies with a small or
narrow cleft of only the soft palate may be able to breastfeed. Babies with
more severe clefts are not able to breastfeed. A lactation specialist can
teach you how to pump your breastmilk to give to your baby by bottle. Many
types of special bottles and nipples are available for a baby with cleft
palate. Your child’s healthcare provider or a cleft nurse feeding specialist
can teach you how to bottle feed your child.
To help with feeding, try the
- Hold your baby in an upright position to help him or her
swallow and to keep milk from going into the nose.
- Give feedings often, but keep them small. This can help
your baby get more calories and gain weight.
- Talk with your child’s healthcare provider or a cleft
nurse feeding specialist about the best and safest positions to offer your
child a breast or bottle.
The team approach is used for managing and fixing cleft lip and palate. Many
healthcare providers may be involved in your baby’s care. They may include:
- Plastic surgeon
- Face and head (craniofacial)
- Ear, nose, and throat (ENT)
- Pediatric dentist
- Speech and language therapist
- Genetic counselor
The healthcare team may also refer your child to other specialists
unique to your child’s condition.
Cleft lip is a split in the lip,
and cleft palate is a split in the roof of the mouth.
- Cleft lip and cleft palate happen when
there is a problem during fetal development.
- Genes and the environment are
involved, but the cause is not completely understood.
- Surgery is the treatment for both
cleft lip and palate.
- The main concern for a baby with cleft
palate is good nutrition. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider or a cleft nurse
Tips to help you get the most from
a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for the visit and what
you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down
questions you want answered.
- At the visit, write down the name of a
new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new
instructions your provider gives you for your child.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment
is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects
- Ask if your child’s condition can be
treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is
recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if your child does
not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If your child has a follow-up
appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your child’s
provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have
questions or need advice.