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All About Cleft Lip And Cleft Palate

Unilateral and Bilateral Cleft Lip and PalateSome people are born with something called a cleft palate or lip, a congenital split in the roof of the mouth or lip.

Although seemingly strange at the sight, both of these conditions are treatable.

What is Cleft Lip / Cleft Palate?

Every year, around 4,440 infants are born with cleft lip and 2,650 with cleft palate in the United States. The associated concerns about these orofacial clefts raise apprehension of parents everywhere.

However, like most congenital problems, a baby can carry on living a normal life if they are treated soon after birth.

Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Defined

Cleftings are birth malformations that occur when an infant’s mouth or lip do not properly form. This is a result of incomplete development during the early stage of fetal formation. Cleft lip or palate happen when there is insufficient tissue in the lip or mouth area. Therefore, the remaining tissue does not adjoin completely.

Orofacial clefts develop during the fourth and seventh weeks of pregnancy when lip development takes place. On the other hand, the palate is formed between the sixth and ninth weeks of pregnancy.

Cleft palettes and lips vary in size. For instance, it might involve the soft palate only or involve a complete slit that runs through the hard palate. A cleft lip can involve a large opening that runs from the nose to the lip, or it can be a small slit.

Additionally, cleft can appear on both sides of the mouth (bilateral clefting) or on just one side (unilateral clefting).

  • Both cleft palate and cleft lip
  • Only cleft lip
  • Only cleft palate

Bullets 1 and 2 are more prevalent in boys than girls. However, cleft palate by itself is more widespread in girls.

Causes of Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

In most cases, the cause of these birth deformities is unknown. Generally, research suggests that clefting is multifactorial in nature.

Some children have a cleft lip or palate due to an inherited genetic condition. It can also be associated with environmental factors. These might include the pregnant mother’s exposure to cigarette smoke, certain medications, and chemicals. Some research suggests that clefting might also due be to vitamin deficiency during pregnancy.

Associated Concerns

If not treated, cleft lip and palate can cause dental malformations, hearing loss, feeding difficulties, and speech problems.

  • Dental malformation. Children that have cleft lip or palate tend to have dental abnormalities. For example, these might include malpositioned teeth, missing teeth, small teeth, or extra teeth. Clefting can also adversely affect the gums, the supporting bone of the teeth or the alveolar ridge. Alveolar ridge defects can pose a problem in the eruption of permanent teeth. It can rotate, tip, or displace permanent teeth.
  • Hearing loss. Congenital cleft palate tends to damage the Eustachian tube in the middle ear. In turn, this makes those affected more susceptible to ear fluid buildup and ear infections. Unfortunately, hearing loss is one of the effects of this eardrum malfunction. The placement of small PE or pressure equalization tubes helps improve hearing by draining the accumulated fluid.
  • Feeding difficulty. Feeding can be a big challenge for babies with clefting. The palate serves as a barrier that prevents liquid and food to penetrate the nose. In order to feed, an infant with an untreated cleft palate necessitates the proper positioning of the bottle with a specialized nipple.
  • Speech problem. After a palatoplasty or the repair of a cleft palate, 15 to 20 percent of children may have speech difficulty. This is commonly a result of the disruption of sound quality due to hypernasality. This occurs with the incomplete closure of the palate that segregates the mouth from the nose.


Cleft lip is easier to spot than cleft palate alone. A cleft lip may be diagnosed via an ultrasound. Since it cannot be seen yet, a cleft palate is determined after childbirth. However, there are certain types of clefting that are not noticeable until later in life. Some of these include bifid uvula and submucous cleft palate.

Treatment and Management

Considering the number of medical problems connected with clefting, different treatments need to be sought out. Depending on the severity, treatment and management may be necessary from childhood to adulthood. The appropriate team might include the following:

  • An oral surgeon to move sections of the upper jaw when necessary and to improve the appearance and function of the clefting
  • An orthodontist to reposition and straighten the teeth
  • A Plastic surgeon to assess the condition and conduct the needed surgeries to repair the lip and/or palate
  • A dentist to conduct routine oral health care
  • An ear, nose, and throat doctor or otolaryngologist to examine the extent of damage to the ear and manage treatments to address hearing problems
  • A prosthodontist to create oral appliances and artificial teeth to sustain the function and appearance of the mouth
  • An audiologist to monitor and evaluate the status of the patient’s hearing
  • A speech therapist to help the patient with his or her speech problem
  • A speech pathologist to evaluate the problems in feeding and speech
  • A geneticist to orient adult patients and parents about the possibility of having other children with these orofacial defects
  • A psychologist/social worker to assess and support the family with each adjustment difficulty
  • A nurse coordinator to offer continuing care to the patient’s health needs

Fortunately, with proper management and treatment, children with cleft lip and/or cleft palate don’t have to suffer with low self-esteem. Apart from medical and dental intervention, parent support is vital. The important takeaway is, children with these malformations can lead a healthy and normal life.


Mayo Clinic Staff. (n.d.). Cleft lip and cleft palate. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic:

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