When a baby’s lip and palate do not properly form before birth, this condition is known as cleft lip and palate. It is possible for a baby could be born with one, or both of these variations.
Cleft lip occurs when the tissue that normally comprises the lip doesn’t completely form before birth. There will be a curve in the lip where it does not fully meet. Cleft lip ranges from a very small defect to one that goes up toward the nose. This condition develops somewhere in the fourth to seventh weeks of pregnancy when the lips develop.
Cleft palate develops some time between the sixth and ninth weeks of pregnancy. It occurs when the roof of the mouth (known as the palate) does not join completely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate in the United States and another 4.440 are born with a cleft lip.
In most instances, a doctor doesn’t know what causes a child to be born with a cleft lip/palate while another is not. However, there are some risk factors that are known to increase a child’s risk for being born with a cleft lip/palate. These include:
Sometimes a doctor can diagnose these conditions during pregnancy via an ultrasound. However, some forms of cleft palate may be especially hard to diagnose.
The presence of a cleft lip and/or palate can create feeding difficulties for a baby as well as present trouble speaking, dental problems, and eating later in life. As a result, doctors will often recommend surgery to repair a cleft lip and/or palate. Because both the lip and palate are integral to eating, doctors usually perform these surgeries early in life, sometimes within the first 12 to 18 months of life, depending on the severity of the condition and other abnormalities a child may have experienced. In the meantime, there are special bottles that can help a baby feed until the cleft lip and/or palate are repaired.
Sometimes surgical repair requires several surgeries for a baby to have the gap in the lip and hole in the roof of the mouth to repair. A child with cleft lip and palate will also often see a hearing specialist known as an audiologist because children with cleft lip/palate may also experience hearing problems due to excess fluid buildup in the ears that may require ear tubes to promote drainage.
As a child grows, it’s possible they may need a bone graft to repair the gum and jaw area. This will help a child’s permanent teeth to be more firmly implanted. While not all children with cleft palate require this procedure, it is a possibility.