An oral-facial cleft is a birth defect. It occurs when the lip or the roof of the mouth do not form properly. The defect may include a cleft lip, a cleft palate, or both. A cleft lip is a gap in the upper lip, usually just below the nose. A cleft palate is a gap in the roof of the mouth or in the soft tissue at the back of the mouth. In the majority of cases, a cleft lip and cleft palate occur together.
Early in pregnancy, all babies have an opening in the lip and palate. As the baby grows, these openings should gradually grow together. By birth, the openings should be closed. For some reason, in children with oral-facial clefts, these openings fail to close. The exact reason these openings do not close is not known.
Oral-facial clefts are more common in males. Other factors in the infant that may increase the chance of oral-facial clefts include:
Factors in the mother during pregnancy that may increase the chance of oral-facial clefts include:
The major symptom of a cleft lip and/or cleft palate is a visible opening in the lip or palate.
Complications that can occur as a result of an oral-facial cleft include:
Cleft lip or cleft palate can be diagnosed by examining the newborn baby. A newborn with an oral-facial cleft may be referred to a team of medical specialists soon after birth. Rarely, a mild cleft palate may go undiagnosed for several months or even years.
Your doctor may be able to see a cleft lip before birth. It may be seen during a prenatal ultrasound examination. A cleft lip can be seen as early as 18 weeks into pregnancy. Cleft palate may be harder to see before birth because it is inside the mouth. Treatment cannot be started until after birth. However, diagnosis during pregnancy will give the parents and the medical team time to prepare a care plan.
Cleft lip and palate are sometimes associated with other medical conditions. Your doctor should be able to tell you whether or not your child’s cleft is a sign of a larger condition. Some of these conditions may need additional treatment.
Surgery is the main treatment. The primary goal of surgery is to close the gap in the lip and palate. Other surgery may also be needed for:
A cleft defect can make it difficult for your child to eat or drink. Your child may be given a dental plate, which is placed in the roof of the mouth. It should make it easier to eat and drink until surgery can be done.
Cleft palates may also be associated with ear and hearing problems. If your child has a middle ear infection or fluid build-up, your doctor may recommend:
Hearing testing should be done regularly. Rarely, children with cleft palate may benefit from hearing aids.
Pregnant women and women who are likely to become pregnant can do the following to help prevent oral-facial clefts in their unborn children:
Children's Craniofacial Association
Cleft Lip and Palate Association
Women's Health Matters
Cleft lip and palate. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115764/Cleft-lip-and-palate. Updated July 7, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2016.
Cleft lip and palate. Nemours Kid's Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/ears/cleft_lip_palate.html. Updated October 2014. Accessed June 6, 2016.
Facts about cleft lip and cleft palate. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/CleftLip.html. Updated November 12, 2015. Accessed June 6, 2016.
Risk of oral birth defects in children born to mothers taking topiramate. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm245594.htm. Updated April 17, 2014. Accessed June 6, 2016.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.