by Dale Ducworth, M.C.D., CCC-SLP
What is cleft lip and cleft palate?
Cleft lip and cleft palate occurs when the lip and/or palate of a baby do not "fuse"
or grow together, leaving a hole in the roof of the mouth (cleft palate) and/or
a split in the upper lip (cleft lip). This condition occurs early in pregnancy during
the first trimester and can occur on one side only (unilateral cleft lip/palate)
or on both sides (bilateral cleft lip/palate).
What causes cleft lip and cleft palate?
Cleft lip and cleft palate is the fourth most common birth defect in the United
States. Over 5,000 babies are born each year with cleft lip and/or cleft palate.
Research indicates that combination of genetic and environmental factors may be
the cause of this birth defect. Cleft palate/lip can occur as the result of a syndrome
or can occur alone without the presence of any other anomalies. This defect occurs
most often among those with Asian ancestry and certain Native American groups. It
occurs least among African Americans.
What problems can occur as a result of cleft lip and cleft palate?
Problems associated with cleft lip and/or cleft palate directly relate to the location
and severity of the cleft. Usually, the most immediate concern with cleft palate
is feeding since the baby is unable to suck. As the baby grows and develops, other
issues may arise such as ear infections, delayed speech development, and dental/orthodontic
What is the treatment for cleft lip and palate?
Treatment for cleft lip and palate usually begins at a very young age and continues
throughout the child's development. Ideally, an interdisciplinary team consisting
of a plastic surgeon, dentist/orthodontist, and speech pathologist will work together
to determine the best course of treatment and carefully monitor the child's progress
over time. Surgeons can repair the cleft lip from the first few days of life to
several months of age. Repair of the palate must come later, from several mo nths
of age to several years old. Often, the child with a cleft palate will require careful
monitoring by a dentist/orthodontist to access and evaluate dental, facial, and
jaw growth and development. As the child develops, speech therapy services may be
necessary to help the child with producing speech sounds correctly.
What is the long-term prognosis?
Understandably, the parents of a child with cleft lip/palate usually have many concerns
about their child's physical appearance, as well as social, emotional, academic,
and speech development. The good news is that most surgical repairs of the palate
and lip are virtually undetectable. Also, with proper intervention and care, a child
with cleft lip and/or palate can develop normally in every aspect of his/her life.
Where can I find more information?
Here is a list of helpful web sites for more information to help parents seek the
best care for their child: