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Understanding Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, cleft lip and cleft palate are the most common birth defects in the United States today.(1) Cleft lip occurs when an infant’s upper lip has not fused together properly. Cleft palate results when the structures of the palate have not properly closed, leaving an opening in the roof of the mouth. These birth defects can be inherited from one or both of the parents or caused by environmental issues during pregnancy, such as smoking, alcohol or drug use, consumption of prescription medications, virus exposure or nutritional deficiency.

Diagnosis and Treatment
Cleft lip and cleft palate are diagnosed at birth or by ultrasound during pregnancy. Clefts can either be simple to treat or more difficult depending upon the size of the opening and how breathing, eating and speaking are affected. Infants may experience difficulty feeding, such as not being able to suck or having nasal regurgitation. Babies suffering from cleft palate are more prone to frequent ear infections and should be evaluated by an ear, nose and throat specialist. Because the lip and palate are crucial to forming sounds, proper speech development can be a major concern. A speech therapist can determine if speech therapy is necessary. A pediatric dentist should also be seen to monitor tooth development.

Medical Treatment
Babies with cleft lip usually undergo surgery between birth and three months. Those with cleft palate require a more complicated surgical procedure up until 1 year of age. Additional surgeries may be needed between age 2 and late adolescence. Medical intervention regarding speech, behavior and psychological factors for the baby or child may also be necessary.(2)

Surgical Options for the Future
Research indicates that doctors may soon provide treatment for cleft lip and cleft
palate for patients in utero. Surgeons could one day conduct minimally invasive procedures before birth, with smaller incisions and limited or no scarring.(2)

1. Information obtained on the Web site of the American Academy of
Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery at lipPalate.cfm.
2 Information obtained at the Mayo Clinic at

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