A cleft lip and cleft palate are facial birth defects. Cleft means an opening. These defects affect the upper lip and the roof of the mouth (palate). The parts that form the baby’s face and palate don’t join before birth.
A cleft lip or palate is the most common facial birth defect. Up to 5000 babies are born in the United States each year with this problem. Clefts occur more often in Asian, Latino, and Native American children.
The cause is unknown. The defects sometimes run in families (are genetic). If either parent has a cleft lip or palate, the chance increases that the baby will also. If both parents are normal and have a baby with a cleft lip or palate, chances are higher that babies born later will have it.
A cleft may occur on one side or both sides of the upper lip. The split usually affects only the lip but may extend into the nose. For a cleft palate, the soft part of the palate at the back of the mouth may be involved, or the cleft may affect the bony part of the palate (hard palate).
These defects can cause feeding and developmental problems, poor dental development, trouble with speech, and frequent colds, sore throats, and ear infections.
The health care provider makes a diagnosis by a physical examination. The need for more tests depends on the defect’s severity.
Surgery can improve a cleft lip or palate. Which type of surgery depends on how bad the defect is. At times the surgeon may be able to fix the baby’s lip before sending the baby home. If the baby has a cleft palate, an operation may be done later.
Other treatments depend on which problems the cleft lip or palate causes. A cleft can make it hard for the baby to suck and feed. A speech and feeding therapist will describe ways to feed the baby. The cleft can cause problems in learning to speak. Care of a speech and language therapist will be needed. A cleft may cause frequent ear infections, which can lead to hearing loss.
A team of specialists can help check the baby. This team may include a surgeon who specializes in these defects, hearing specialist, dentist, orthodontist (dentist who straightens teeth), and speech-language specialist (for both speech and feeding problems). Psychologists and social workers may also be involved.
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