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Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

What are cleft lip and cleft palate?

Cleft lip/palate occurs when a baby’s lip or mouth do not form properly during pregnancy. It is the fourth most common birth defect and occurs in 1 in every 1,600 babies in the United States.

A cleft lip is a separation of the upper lip. The cleft can occur on one or both sides of the lip. A cleft palate is a separation of the top of the mouth. Like cleft lip, the cleft palate also can occur on one or both sides of the top of the mouth.

Many times, someone who has a cleft lip also will have a cleft palate.

What causes cleft lip and cleft palate?

The causes of clefts among most infants are unknown, but some are believed to be due to changes in their genes, or a combination of other factors, like things the mother comes in contact within her environment or what the mother eats or drinks. Recent research studies have also found some factors increase the chance of having a baby with a cleft, such as:

  • smoking
  • diabetes
  • use of medications during pregnancy

Regular prenatal care can help reduce the risks of birth defects.

Parents often want to learn more about the chance of having another child with a cleft. Specialized medical providers, called genetic counselors, can help give you this information.

How are cleft lip and cleft palate treated?

Those with cleft lip and cleft palate are usually treated with surgery when they are a baby.
Parents should consult a cleft lip/palate specialist team. This team of professionals will work with you, your baby, and your family doctor to make sure your baby gets the best care possible. Teams can be located by calling the Cleft Palate Foundation at (800) 242-5338.

Are there special feeding issues for babies born with cleft lip or cleft palate?

A baby with only cleft lip usually does not experience feeding problems other than learning to latch to the nipple at the start of the feeding. Special nipples are available to assist with feeding.

A baby with both a cleft lip and cleft palate may need to be fed differently due to the open area between the nose and mouth.

It is best to hold the baby in an upright position while feeding to decrease the chance of milk leaking into the nose.

Cleft palate babies also may swallow more air, needing to burp more.
The important point to remember is that the baby needs to receive proper nutrition through feeding. The baby’s weight should be checked on a regular basis by a doctor to know the baby is gaining adequate weight.

Will a child with cleft lip or cleft palate have special dental needs?

Children with cleft lip or cleft palate require early evaluation by a dentist familiar with their special needs. These children may have problems with poorly positioned, malformed, or missing teeth. With early detection and intervention, children with cleft lips or cleft palates can lead normal, healthy lives. 

Where can a person learn more about cleft lip/cleft palate?

  • The Cleft Palate Foundation is a public service and education organization that provides services to patients and families. It also distributes informational brochures and fact sheets on clefts. The foundation’s 24-hour toll-free hotline is (800)242-5338.
  • The University of Illinois’ Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) provides information and can refer patients and families to its nearest office for help. Call (800)322-3722.
  • The Illinois Early Childhood Intervention Clearinghouse provides library and information services about early childhood and disability issues. They can be reached at (800)852-4302.