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Understanding Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Cleft Palate or a Cleft Lip may be Prevented

Learn about cleft lip and cleft palate.

A cleft palate is a type of birth defect. So is a cleft lip. When your child has a cleft palate, it means there’s a split, or an opening on the top of the mouth, which is called the palate. With a cleft lip, there’s a split or opening on the upper lip. A child may be born with either one of these conditions, or both.

With a cleft palate, it can be in various locations of your child’s mouth.

Babies that have a cleft lip sometimes have a small notch in the upper lip. Others may have a hole or larger opening going to the bottom of their nose.

Young babies born with these types of birth defects may have trouble drinking out of a bottle or nursing.

Diagnosis

Your doctor may be able to see a cleft lip through an ultrasound. This is a type of imaging test used during pregnancy to check on a baby. It creates pictures of the womb and your unborn child.

A cleft palate is more difficult to spot on an ultrasound, though.

If the ultrasound does show either birth defect, however, it’s likely your baby will be checked for other possible birth defects. Your doctor may want an amniocentesis performed. This is when your doctor puts a needle into your uterus to take out some of the fluid surrounding the baby. That fluid is then tested for potential problems with a child’s genes.

Repair

Normally, either of these conditions can be fixed with surgery. With a cleft lip, your doctor will likely want to do the surgery during the first few months, and before your child turns one. With a cleft palate, doctors want to do the surgery before your child turns 18-months. The timing, however, is likely different for each child. Some babies may need more than one surgery to fix the problem.

Other Potential Problems

A baby born with either a cleft palate or a cleft lip may also need additional surgeries later on. Oftentimes, these children also have other problems like:

  • Speaking trouble - Your child may need help learning to speak more clearly from a speech therapist.

  • Extra, crooked or missing teeth - Many of these kids will need to have braces once their permanent teeth come in.

  • Hearing loss and ear infections - If your child gets lots of ear infections, your doctor may want to put a tube in your child’s eardrum. These will help prevent future ear infections, and possibly help your child hear better.

Prevention

In some case, a cleft palate or a cleft lip may be prevented. Pregnant women who do the following are more likely to have a child with a cleft palate or a cleft lip:

  • Smoking

  • Not getting enough folic acid during pregnancy

  • Drinking alcohol

  • Taking medicines used for treating seizures or Methotrexate (used for treating cancer and other diseases)

If you’re pregnant, or you’re hoping to get pregnant, you need to start taking a prenatal multivitamin. You want one with no less than 400 micrograms of folic acid. Also, don’t drink alcohol or smoke, and let your doctor know if you’re taking any medicines.

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