Cleft lip and palate 

  • Overview

Introduction 

A cleft lip and palate is the most common facial birth defect in the UK 

A cleft is a gap or split in either the upper lip or the roof of the mouth (palate), or sometimes both. It occurs when separate areas of the face do not join together properly when a baby is developing during pregnancy.

The face and upper lip develops during the fifth to ninth week of pregnancy. Most cleft problems can either be picked up at the routine 20 week scan or soon after birth. However, a submucous cleft, where the cleft is hidden in the lining of the roof of the mouth, may not be detected for months or even years.

Learn more about diagnosing cleft lip and palate.

A cleft can lead to feeding, speech and hearing problems, ear infections, dental decay, jaw development problems and psychosocial issues.

Learn more about complications of cleft lip and palate.

What causes cleft lip and palate?

The exact cause of clefts is not known, although evidence suggests they are caused by a combination of genetics and enviromental factors, such as smoking and drinking in early pregnancy and a lack of folic acid in the mother's diet.

Cleft lip and palate can occur on its own (non-syndromic) or can sometimes be part of a wider series of birth defects (syndromic).

Learn more about the causes of cleft lip and palate.

Who is affected?

A cleft lip and palate is the most common facial birth defect in the UK. One in every 700 babies is born with a cleft. The type of cleft and how severe it is can vary widely between children.

Approximately half of all affected babies are born with a cleft lip and palate, a third with a cleft palate only, and 1 in 10 have a cleft lip only or a submucous cleft.

A cleft lip or combined cleft lip and palate are more common in boys, but a cleft palate on its own is more common in girls.

Outlook

Surgery is the usual treatment for cleft lip and palate, with good results. After treatment most children have a normal appearance, with minimal scarring and normal speech.

All types of treatment for cleft lip and palate are available on the NHS. A long-term, structured care plan from a team of cleft specialists is usually needed to help children born with clefts. Ongoing or follow-up treatment that lasts for up to 20 years is often required.

Learn more about treatment for cleft lip and palate.

Page last reviewed: 05/07/2012

Next review due: 05/07/2014

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