Cleft Lip and Palate: What it Is and How to Prevent It

Posted On: October 3, 2019 By Nathan D. Fox, MD

A cleft lip or cleft palate happens when your baby’s upper lip and mouth doesn’t form completely. This results in an opening and is present at birth. Oral clefts (or orofacial clefts) occur in about 1 in 1,000 babies in the Unite States, meaning it’s a relatively common birth defect. It often happens early in pregnancy, or between 4 and 9 weeks of gestation, and male babies are more likely to have a cleft lip (with or without a cleft palate) than female babies, but female babies are more likely to have a cleft palate without a cleft lip.

Oral clefts can range from mild severe. In the case of a cleft lip, it can occur as a small notch above the upper lip. Other times, it can occur as a large opening or hole between the upper lip and nose. It most often occurs on one or both sides of the lip. On the other hand, cleft palates can affect either the soft palate (the soft tissue at the back of the mouth) or hard palate (the bony part in the front of the mouth).

What causes oral clefts?

It’s not well understood what causes oral clefts, although there are some things that seem to increase the risk. This usually includes genetic and environmental factors. These include:

  • A family history of oral clefts. Oral clefts can be more common in families of Asian, Hispanic, and Native American descent
  • Substance use during pregnancy
  • Nutrient deficiency, specifically of folic acid
  • Having diabetes before pregnancy
  • Use of certain anti-seizure medications
  • Obesity during pregnancy
  • Certain infections like rubella

How are oral clefts diagnosed and treated?

Although oral clefts can be easily diagnosed after birth, they can sometimes be viewed with an ultrasound. After birth, it’s usually recommended to have corrective surgery performed within one year. This allows for normal growth and development, as well as the prevention of difficulties with breathing, speech, and feeding. It’s possible that your child might need additional surgeries for oral clefts as they grow, so it’s important to partner with a team of dentists, facial surgeons, and speech therapists who can ensure your child develops normally throughout life.

How can I prevent oral clefts?

Although oral clefts are not totally preventable, there are some steps you can take before and during pregnancy to lower the risk. This includes taking folic acid, which can prevent many types of birth defects (it’s recommended to take at least 400 micrograms per day before pregnancy and 600 micrograms per day during pregnancy). Additionally, quit using all substances like alcohol and nicotine as soon as possible. If you’re at an unhealthy weight, you should achieve a healthy weight before getting pregnant. Finally, partner with a preconceptions counselor who can ensure you’re taking the right steps to prevent certain birth defects and undergoing the appropriate screenings.

Schedule an Appointment

Although oral clefts are not often severe, they can prevent challenges to your child early on. To partner with our expert team and begin taking the right steps for prevention and management of oral clefts, contact our New York City office by calling or filling out our online form.

Carnegie Imaging for Women blogs are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace certified professional care. Medical conditions vary and change frequently. Please ask your doctor any questions you may have regarding your condition to receive a proper diagnosis or risk analysis. Thank you!

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