A cleft is an opening in the lip, the roof of the mouth or the soft tissue in the back of the mouth. A cleft lip may be accompanied by an opening in the bones of the upper jaw and/or the upper gum. A cleft palate occurs when the two sides of a palate do not join together, resulting in an opening in the roof of the mouth. A cleft lip and cleft palate can occur on one side or both sides. A child can suffer from a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both.
The exact cause is unknown. Cleft lips and cleft palates are congenital defects that occur early in embryonic development. Scientists believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as maternal illness, drugs or malnutrition, may lead to a cleft lip or cleft palate. If one child in a family is born with a cleft, the risk increases by 2 to 4 percent that future children in the family will suffer from the same defect.
Scientists are researching methods to prevent cleft lips and cleft palates. One finding, according to research studies, is that mothers who take multivitamins containing folic acid before conception and during the first two months of pregnancy may reduce their risk of giving birth to a baby with a cleft.
Ear disease and dental problems occur frequently, as do problems with proper speech development. Children who suffer from a cleft lip and/or cleft palate may have difficulty eating. To address these issues, a child and family may work with a team of specialists — a pediatrician, a plastic surgeon, dental specialists, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist), a speech-language pathologist and audiologist, a geneticist and a psychologist/social worker.
Yes. Cleft lip and cleft palate surgery provides excellent results. A pediatrician and a plastic surgeon work with a child's parents to choose the best timing for surgery. Most surgeons agree that a cleft lip repair should be completed by the time a baby is 3 months old. To repair the partition of mouth and nose as early as possible, cleft palate surgery is recommended between the ages of 12 and 18 months. Any surgical procedure or cleft lip or cleft palate treatment is dependent upon a child's general health and the nature of the cleft lip or cleft palate.
Cleft lip and cleft palate occur in approximately 1 in 700 births, the ratio varying considerably across geographic areas or ethnic groupings.
If you would like additional information regarding cleft lip and cleft palate, statistics and treatment, contact us. Additional resources regarding cleft lip and palate occurrence is available in our Gene/Environment Study or in the Publication section of our site. For ongoing updates, sign up for our e-newsletter by entering your email address below.
Learn about our research efforts into how and why clefts occur.