A cleft lip is a congenital defect that develops in early pregnancy when the two sides of the upper lip do not completely fuse together. This can be a small opening, or it can extend all the way to the nose. A cleft palate, also a congenital defect, occurs on the roof of the mouth, when the two sides of the palate inside the mouth do not connect. It’s possible for a baby to have a cleft lip and a cleft palate at the same time.
Of all birth defects seen in the United States, a cleft lip and a cleft palate are two of the most common ones.
Causes of Cleft Lip, Cleft Palate
Researchers aren't sure what causes a cleft lip or a cleft palate, but they suspect that it might be due to a variety of genetic and environmental factors. A pregnant mother who smokes, has diabetes or uses certain medications, for example, may increase a child's chances of developing a cleft lip or a cleft palate.
When a child does develop a cleft lip or a cleft palate, the condition usually forms during early pregnancy. The lip forms between the fourth and seventh weeks of pregnancy, and the palate takes shape between the sixth and ninth weeks.
Corrective surgery is the recommended treatment for most cleft lips and cleft palates. The extent and number of surgeries will vary based on how extreme the defects are. It is recommended that these procedures take place early in the child's life -- in the first 12 months for a cleft lip and in the first 18 months for a cleft palate.
These surgeries not only improve the child's appearance, but they can also improve other issues related to the birth defects, such as speech, hearing and breathing problems. Still, many children who were born with a cleft lip or a cleft palate may need other treatments as well, such as speech therapy or special dental work later in life.
SOURCES: Cleft Palate Foundation; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.