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What Are Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate?

Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

Cleft lip and cleft palate are two of the most common birth defects seen in children today. Also known as orofacial clefts, these birth defects result in tissue forming incorrectly in and around the mouth. While there are no single, direct causes of these defects, there are many different factors that may contribute to cleft palate or cleft lip.

Diagnosing Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

Non-invasive prenatal testing, or NIPT, is used to screen for genetic disorders during pregnancy. Other options like serum screening can detect open neural tube defects but are not recommended for orofacial clefts.

Most of the time, cleft lip and cleft palate can be identified via ultrasound during pregnancy. Under the best circumstances, a physician can see clefts of the alveolar ridge as early as 20 weeks gestation. Otherwise, orofacial clefts can be diagnosed at the time of birth.

How Are Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Different?

While both cleft lip and cleft palate cause irregular openings in the mouth and/or lip, they are two different conditions. Cleft lip occurs when the tissue growing around a developing baby’s mouth does not join completely. This results in an opening or slit on the lip.

A Cleft palate is when the tissue forming on the inside of a baby’s mouth does not join. This forms a crevasse or opening inside the mouth. A cleft palate can occur alongside a cleft lip. Whether they appear together or alone, cleft palate and cleft lip cause difficulty feeding and can result in difficulty speaking later in life.


There are no known direct causes for cleft lip and cleft palate. However, researchers believe the condition may sometimes arise from an issue with one or more chromosomes. In addition, outside factors can also play a role. The CDC has recently reported its findings on factors that can cause cleft lip or cleft palate. These include:

  • Smoking. The CDC notes that women who smoke during pregnancy have a much higher chance of having a baby with cleft lip or cleft palate than women who do not.
  • Certain medications. The use of certain medications, especially in the early stages of pregnancy, is associated with an increased risk of having a baby with a cleft lip or cleft palate. These medications include epilepsy treatment like Topiramate as well as acne treatments like Accutane.
  • Diabetes. The CDC also found that women diagnosed with diabetes before becoming pregnant have a higher chance of having children with cleft lip or cleft palate versus women who are nondiabetic.

Treatment Options

Treatment options vary depending on the type of cleft and its severity, as well as how heavily it affects the child. Surgery is the most common of these treatments and is recommended before 12 months of age for a cleft lip and before 18 months of age for a cleft palate. Both will help ensure proper growth and development as a child age. Additional surgeries may be necessary throughout a child’s early years to aid with things like breathing and speaking.

Proper dental and orthodontic care are another important part of treating a cleft lip or cleft palate. Doctors can identify each patient’s unique needs and keep an eye on other developing areas that may be affected by orofacial clefts.

Fortunately, children diagnosed with cleft lip or cleft palate go on to live regular, healthy lives. Adequate preparation is essential to ensuring optimal health and there are a variety of treatment options that can support families as they navigate these conditions.


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