Cleft Lip and Cleft Palates Explained
In the United States, nearly 6,800 babies are born with oral-facial clefts each year.1 Cleft lip and cleft palate occur during pregnancy when the sides of the lip and roof of the mouth don't fuse together properly.
Cleft palate vs. Cleft lip
Cleft palate is what happens when the roof of the mouth doesn't close all of the way, leaving an opening that can extend into the nasal cavity. Cleft lip is when the lip doesn't completely form during development. Some children are born with both cleft lip and cleft palate. Cleft lip and some types of cleft palate can usually be identified during pregnancy, as they show up on routine ultrasound exams.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a baby's chance of having a cleft lip or palate can be increased if the mother smokes during pregnancy, has diabetes or takes certain types of medication for epilepsy. However, these factors do not explain all cleft lips and cleft palates, and it is likely that genetics and environmental factors both play a role in a baby's development of a cleft lip or palate.
A baby with cleft palate may have trouble feeding right away – the deformity of the upper mouth makes it difficult or even impossible to suck properly. The same goes for speech development – whether it's due to cleft palate or cleft lip, it can be hard for children with clefts to develop the muscle function necessary for speech because they don't have the right formation in their mouths. Depending on the severity of a cleft palate, it can also affect a child's hearing and breathing. Finally, depending on how the clefts are formed, teeth may not be able to erupt correctly or even at all.
A team of people are usually involved in correcting a cleft lip or cleft palate, often including your child's pediatrician, oral surgeons and speech therapy specialists. The type of dental treatment provided depends on the severity of the problem – some children may require extensive surgery, while others may just need orthodontic treatment similar to braces.2 Though cleft lip and cleft palate can cause complications for children even after surgery, proper care allows babies born with cleft lips and palates to live healthy lives.
Families whose babies are born with cleft lips or cleft palates should still practice good oral health habits in ways that are appropriate for their children's unique needs. For more information about good oral health practices for children age 0-3, read our guide.