What Is Cleft Lip and Palate?

Cleft Lip and Palate is a Common Birth Defect

Cleft Lip
Cleft Lip. Photo © A.D.A.M.

Being born with a cleft lip and/or palate (roof of the mouth) is a common birth defect. During the first three months of fetal development, the palate and lips have a cleft (or separation) and develop separately. During normal development, the cleft closes and and the lips and mouth properly develop. The fusion of the two halves leaves the normal curvature of the upper lip, called Cupid's Bow, that remain with the fetus throughout adulthood.

Failure of the clefts to close results in a cleft lip and is referred to as a “craniofacial anomaly.”

There are varying degrees of malformation leading to cleft lip, cleft palate, or a combination of both. Within each of the disorders, there can also be varying degrees of severity ranging from mild notches in the lip (microform cleft) or palate to a severe split through the mouth into the nose.

Risk Factors for Cleft Lip

Little is understood about why cleft lip and cleft palate occur and further research is currently being conducted. Most medical professionals lean toward the following rationales:

  • inheritance – genetics from one or both parents
  • environment – viruses, drugs (antiseizure medications, cocaine, alcohol, smoking)
  • poor prenatal health (vitamin B and folate deficiencies).
  • genetic syndromes – more than 400 syndromes have cleft palate and lip as an associated deformity including Pierre Robin and Down syndrome

    Because the cause often cannot be pinpointed, and 30 percent of all cases are related to a genetic syndrome, genetic counseling is usually advised. While some parents have a tendency to blame themselves, parents should know that there are no clear indications as to why this deformity occurs. The genetic and environmental reasons mentioned above are known causes of cleft lip and cleft palate, but not fully understood at this time.

    Types of Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

    In about 50 percent of cases, both cleft lip and palate are involved. Combined cleft lip and palate occurs more commonly in males, while females more commonly have isolated cleft palate. Why some infants have combined versus single or isolated clefting is also not fully understood.

    How Is Cleft Lip Diagnosed?

    Cleft lip or palate can be diagnosed visually during the baby's first ultrasound (around the 20th week of pregnancy), as the fusion of the palates and upper lips should have been completed by this time. Aside from ultrasound, visual inspection of the oral cavity after birth can be used to diagnose this deformity. Other testing would only be necessary to determine if there were any other serious health conditions.

    Possible Complications of Cleft Lip

    Complications associated with cleft lip and palate are:

    In order to help overcome the complications that can arise with cleft lip and cleft lip palate, a team of various medical professionals will be helpful. In choosing a medical team to assist in the management of your child's health, consider the following:

    • pediatrician

    How Is Cleft Palate Treated?

    Within 6 to 12 weeks of birth, the cleft lip and cleft palate repair can begin. Surgical procedures will be important especially in the cases of problems with feeding. Several surgeries are often necessary and the extent of the surgeries will depend on the severity of the oral or nasal deformities. Follow-up will be an important part of the treatment process and outreach with other specialists will be necessary to overcome speech, feeding, and hearing problems.

    Despite sometimes requiring multiple challenging surgeries, cleft lip and cleft palate can be cured.


    American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. Fact Sheet: Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate. Accessed: August 14, 2009 from http://www.entnet.org/HealthInformation/cleftLipPalate.cfm

    Cleft Palate Foundation. For the Parents of Newborn Babies with Cleft Lip/Cleft Palate. Accessed: August 14, 2009 from http://www.cleftline.org/publications/newborn

    March of Dimes Foundation. Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate. Accessed: August 14, 2009 from http://www.marchofdimes.com/baby/cleft-lip-and-cleft-palate.aspx#

    Medline Plus. Cleft Lip and Palate. Accessed: August 14, 2009 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001051.htm

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