A cleft lip or cleft palate is a split or opening in the upper lip, the palate (roof of the mouth), or both. They result when facial structures developing in an unborn baby fail to close completely. Cleft lip and cleft palate are common birth defects that often occur as isolated birth defects. However, they are sometimes associated with certain inherited genetic conditions.
Having a child born with a cleft lip or cleft palate can be concerning, but both can be repaired through a series of surgeries that restore normal function and appearance with minimal scarring.
What Is Cleft Lip?
A baby’s lips form between four and seven weeks of pregnancy. As babies develop in the womb, cells from both sides of the head grow towards the center of the face and link together. This joining of tissues forms the facial features, including the lips and mouth. A cleft lip occurs if the tissue that forms the lips does not join fully before birth, resulting in an opening in the upper lip.
Depending on the extent of deformity, the opening can be a small slit or a large opening going through the lip into the nose. Moreover, a cleft lip can affect one or both sides of the lip, or even the middle of the lip. Babies with a cleft lip can also have a cleft palate.
What Is Cleft Palate?
The palate (roof of the mouth) usually forms between six and nine weeks of pregnancy. Typically, a cleft palate occurs if the tissue that forms the roof of the mouth fails to fully join together during pregnancy. For some children, both the front and back areas of the palate stay open. For certain babies, only portions of the palate stay open.
Symptoms of Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate
Usually, a cleft in the lip or palate is identifiable at birth. Cleft lip and cleft palate may manifest as:
- A split in the lip and roof of the mouth that impacts one or both sides of the face
- A split in the roof of the mouth that may not affect the appearance of the face
- A split in the lip that manifests as only a small notch in the lip or stretches from the lip through the palate and upper gum into the bottom of the nose.
In rare cases, a cleft may occur only in the soft palate’s muscles (submucous cleft palate), which sits at the back of the mouth, under the mouth’s lining. This type of cleft can go unnoticed at birth and may not be diagnosed until symptoms develop.
Common signs and symptoms of submucous cleft palate include:
- Difficulty swallowing, with the potential for foods or liquids to exit the nose
- Difficulty with feedings
- Chronic ear infections
- Nasal speaking voice
Causes of Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate
Researchers believe that many cleft lip and cleft palate cases are triggered by an interaction of environmental and genetic factors. But in most babies, a definite cause cannot be confirmed. Parents can pass on genes that trigger clefting, either individually or as part of a genetic condition. In some cases, children inherit a gene that increases their risk of developing a cleft, and then environmental factors cause the cleft to occur.
Several factors may raise the likelihood of a child developing a cleft lip or cleft palate, including:
- Family history of cleft lip or cleft palate
- A mother with diabetes
- A mother who is overweight during pregnancy
In addition, male babies are more likely to develop a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate.
Parents who deliver a baby with a cleft may be concerned about the risk of having another baby with the same condition. Although many cases of cleft lip and cleft palate are not preventable, consider these simple steps to lower your risk:
- Consider genetic counseling
- Take prenatal vitamins
- Don’t use tobacco or alcohol during pregnancy
Ultimately, it’s important to consult with a qualified medical practitioner who can explain the risk factors for developing a cleft lip and cleft palate and the recommended treatment plans.