An oral-facial cleft is a birth defect. The lip or the roof of the mouth do not form the usual way. The defect may be a cleft lip, a cleft palate, or both. A cleft lip is a gap in the upper lip, often just below the nose. A cleft palate is a gap in the roof of the mouth or in the soft tissue at the back of the mouth. In most people, a cleft lip and cleft palate happen together.
Early in pregnancy, all babies have an opening in the lip and palate. As the baby grows, these openings should slowly grow together. By birth, they should be closed. For some reason, these openings fail to close in children with this defect. It may be due to a mix of genes and the environment.
Cleft lip or cleft palate can be diagnosed by looking at the newborn baby. A newborn with an oral-facial cleft may be referred to a team of specialists soon after birth. Rarely, a mild cleft palate may go undiagnosed for several months or even years.
Your doctor may be able to see a cleft lip before birth. It may be seen during a prenatal ultrasound. A cleft lip can be seen as early as 18 weeks into pregnancy. Cleft palate may be harder to see before birth because it is inside the mouth. Treatment can’t be started until after birth. However, diagnosis during pregnancy will give the parents and the medical team time to make a care plan.
Cleft lip and palate are sometimes linked to other health problems. Your doctor should be able to tell you if your child’s cleft is a sign of a larger problem. Some of these problems may need more treatment.
Surgery is the main treatment. The main goal is to close the gap in the lip and palate. Other surgery may also be needed for:
Bite alignment surgery if the jaw is not aligned the correct way
Plastic and/or nasal surgery for facial appearance and function
A cleft defect can make it hard for your child to eat or drink. Your child may be given a dental plate. This is placed in the roof of the mouth. It should make it easier to eat and drink until surgery can be done.
Cleft palates may also be linked to ear and hearing problems. If your child has a middle ear infection or fluid build-up, your doctor may advise:
Medications to treat infection or prevent fluid build-up
Surgery to drain built-up fluid and prevent future infections
Hearing testing should be done regularly. Rarely, children with cleft palate may need hearing aids.
Cleft lip and palate. Nemours Kid's Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/ears/cleft_lip_palate.html. Updated October 2014. Accessed June 27, 2018.
Facts about cleft lip and cleft palate. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/CleftLip.html. Updated June 27, 2017. Accessed June 27, 2018.
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