Understanding Cleft Lips and Palates and Your Treatment Options

March 6th, 2018

Understanding Cleft Lips and Palates and Your Treatment Options

Cleft lip and cleft palate are facial and oral malformations that occur very early in pregnancy, while the baby is developing inside the mother. Clefts result when there is not enough tissue in the mouth or lip area, and the tissue that is available does not join together properly. Cleft lip and cleft palate can occur on one or both sides of the mouth. Because the lip and the palate develop separately, it is possible to have a cleft lip without a cleft palate, a cleft palate without a cleft lip, or both together. We take a deeper look into what cleft lips and palates are and how the condition can be treated.


What is a cleft lip/palate?

A cleft lip is a physical split or separation of the two sides of the upper lip and appears as a narrow opening or gap in the skin of the upper lip. This separation often extends beyond the base of the nose and includes the bones of the upper jaw and/or upper gum. It is caused by the failure of the tissue of the lip to join before birth during the fourth through the seventh week of pregnancy.

A cleft palate occurs when there is a split or direct opening between the roof of the mouth, and the floor of the nose. Between the sixth and ninth week of pregnancy, the baby's upper jaw fails to close properly, leaving a gap. A cleft palate is a more serious condition than a cleft lip, though both require surgery in order to be corrected.


Who is prone to cleft lip and cleft palate?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip and 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate in the United States each year. Clefts occur more often in children of Asian, Latino, or Native American descent. Compared with girls, twice as many boys have a cleft lip, both with and without a cleft palate. However, compared with boys, twice as many girls have cleft palate without a cleft lip.


What causes a cleft lip and cleft palate?

In most cases, the cause of cleft lip and cleft palate is unknown. These conditions cannot be prevented. Most scientists believe clefts are due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There appears to be a greater chance of clefting in a newborn if a sibling, parent, or relative has had the problem. Another potential cause may be related to a medication a mother may have taken during her pregnancy. Some drugs may cause cleft lip and cleft palate, including anti-seizure/anticonvulsant drugs, acne drugs containing Accutane, and methotrexate, a drug commonly used for treating cancer, arthritis, and psoriasis. Cleft lip and cleft palate may also occur as a result of exposure to viruses or chemicals while the fetus is developing in the womb.


How do I know if my baby has a cleft lip or cleft palate?

The doctor who delivers your baby will probably be able to tell right away if he or she has a cleft lip or palate. Prenatal ultrasound can sometimes determine if a cleft exists in an unborn child. A cleft lip is easy enough to see. A cleft palate can vary in size from a small crack to a large hole in the roof of the mouth and will be apparent soon after birth, if not detected via ultrasound during the pregnancy. When a baby with a cleft palate tries to feed, liquids or food may come out of its nose — something that can be addressed with special bottles and extra care until the baby is old enough to undergo surgery.


What problems are associated with cleft lip and palate?

  • Eating problems. With a separation or opening in the palate, food and liquids can pass from the mouth back through the nose. Fortunately, specially designed baby bottles and nipples that help keep fluids flowing downward toward the stomach are available. Children with a cleft palate may need to wear a man-made palate to help them eat properly and ensure that they are receiving adequate nutrition until surgical treatment is provided.
  • Ear infections/hearing loss. Children with cleft palate are at increased risk of ear infections since they are more prone to fluid build-up in the middle ear. If left untreated, ear infections can cause hearing loss. To prevent this from happening, children with cleft palate usually need special tubes placed in the eardrums to aid fluid drainage, and their hearing needs to be checked once a year.
  • Speech problems. Children with cleft lip or cleft palate may also have trouble speaking. These children's voices don't carry well, the voice may take on a nasal sound and their speech may be difficult to understand. Not all children have these problems and for some, surgery may fix these issues entirely. For others, a special doctor called a speech pathologist will work with the child to resolve speech difficulties.
  • Dental Problems. Children with clefts are more prone to a larger than average number of cavities and often have missing, extra, malformed, or displaced teeth requiring dental and orthodontic treatments. In addition, children with cleft palate often have an alveolar ridge defect. The alveolus is the bony upper gum that contains teeth. A defect in the alveolus can (1) displace, tip, or rotate permanent teeth, (2) prevent permanent teeth from appearing, and (3) prevent the alveolar ridge from forming. These problems can usually be repaired through oral surgery.


How are cleft lips and cleft palates treated?

A cleft lip may require one or two surgeries depending on the extent of the repair needed. The initial surgery is usually performed by the time a baby is three months old. Repair of a cleft palate often requires multiple surgeries over the course of 18 years. The first surgery to repair the palate usually occurs when the baby is between 6 and 12 months old. The initial surgery creates a functional palate, reduces the chances that fluid will develop in the middle ears, and aids in the proper development of the teeth and facial bones. Children with a cleft palate may also need a bone graft when they are about 8 years old to fill in the upper gum line so that it can support permanent teeth and stabilize the upper jaw. About 20 percent of children with a cleft palate require further surgeries to help improve their speech. Once the permanent teeth grow in, braces are often needed to straighten the teeth. Additional surgeries may be performed to improve the appearance of the lip and nose, close openings between the mouth and nose, help breathing, and stabilize and realign the jaw. Final repairs of the scars left by the initial surgery will probably not be performed until adolescence, when the facial structure is more fully developed. Your healthcare team will provide guidance and encouragement during the difficult time from birth to treatment. With the advances in surgical techniques and corrective appliances, the outlook for children born with cleft lips and palates is excellent. As the child gets older, little sign of the cleft should remain.


If you have any questions about cleft lips or palates, call Winning Smiles to schedule an appointment with your dentist – 716-332-2444.