Cleft Palate & Cleft Lip

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An oral-facial cleft is a birth defect that occurs when the lip or the roof of the mouth do not form properly. The defect may include a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both.

cleft lip is a gap in the upper lip, usually 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 the majority of cases, a cleft lip and cleft palate occur together.

What Causes a Cleft?

Early in pregnancy, all babies have an opening in the lip and palate. As the baby grows, these openings should gradually grow together and close by birth. In children with oral-facial clefts, these openings fail to close. The exact cause is unknown, though we know that genetics plays a key role.

Preventing Oral-Facial Clefts

Pregnant women and women who are likely to become pregnant can do the following to help prevent oral-facial clefts in their unborn children:

  • Consume 400 micrograms of folic acid every day and eat foods containing folic acid, such as:
    • Fruits and orange juice
    • Green, leafy vegetables
    • Dried beans and peas
    • Pasta, rice, bread, flour and cereals
  • Do not smoke or drink alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Talk to your doctor about any medications during pregnancy. 
  • Get early and regular prenatal care.

Diagnosing Clefts

A prenatal ultrasound can show a cleft lip or palate. Rarely, a mild cleft palate may go undiagnosed for several months or even years after birth.

Treating a Child With Cleft Palate

Plastic surgery can repair a cleft lip of a baby at 3-4 months old and cleft palate at about a year old. Surgery aims to close the gap in the lip and palate. Other surgery may also be needed to:

  • Correct bite alignment
  • Improve appearance and function

Cleft Complications

Complications include:

  • Feeding problems, especially for a child with cleft palate
  • Problems with speech development
  • Dental problems, including missing teeth, especially when cleft lip extends to the upper gum area
  • Symptoms of middle ear infections
  • Hearing problems
  • Symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing

Online Cleft Resources

Learn more about cleft palate and cleft lip.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.