About cleft lip and cleft palate

A cleft lip or cleft palate is when the lip or the roof of the mouth doesn’t close over properly. This forms a cleft, or open space, in the lip or mouth. Cleft lip and cleft palate can happen separately or happen together. Cleft lip alone is more common.

Cleft lip and cleft palate are congenital defects – this means they happen during the development of the fetus and are present at birth.

We don’t know exactly what causes cleft lip and cleft palate. Genetic influences are believed to be largely responsible, although often there’s no family history of the condition.

Symptoms of cleft lip and cleft palate

Cleft lips and/or cleft palates vary in severity. They can range from a small notch in the upper lip, to a gaping defect of the lip and palate.

With a cleft palate, the hole in the roof of the mouth means there’s an abnormal connection between the mouth and the nose.

Other problems associated with cleft lip and cleft palate

Babies with cleft palate might have significant trouble feeding. This is because they find it difficult or impossible to suck, even though they have no problems swallowing.

Babies with a cleft palate might get ‘glue ear’. This is when fluid builds up behind the ear drum. Glue ear can lead to hearing difficulties.

Children who have cleft lip and palate might also have problems with teeth and gums. For example, they might have missing teeth, extra teeth or teeth coming out the wrong place or in an abnormal direction. This can affect baby teeth and/or adult teeth.

Cleft lip and cleft palate might also affect the way children’s noses look.

Treatment for cleft lip and cleft palate

Treatment for cleft lips and/or cleft palates depends on their severity.

Initially babies need to be fed with a special spout, or elongated teat. This sends milk to the back of the throat.

Surgery is always necessary, and the type, extent and number of operations depend on the severity of the cleft lip or cleft palate. A cleft lip is usually repaired at 3-6 months of age, and a cleft palate at around 9-12 months of age, before children start to speak. After surgery, cleft lips usually look much better.

After surgery, children with cleft lip or cleft palate need regular follow-up visits with specialist teams. This is to check how they’re growing and how they look, speak and hear. These follow-up checks help doctors decide whether children need more surgery.

Children with cleft lip and palate often need other therapy. For example, children with cleft palate need speech therapy to learn to speak normally. Children might also need specialised dental care to fix teeth problems.

Prevention of cleft lip and cleft palate

You can’t prevent cleft lip and/or cleft palate. Current research shows that what parents do during pregnancy has no effect on whether a child is born with these conditions.

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