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Updated on September 1, 2023
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Cleft Lip and Palate: Types, Causes, Risks & Treatment

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What is Cleft Lip and Palate?

Oral clefts appear as splits or openings in the upper lip, palate (roof of the mouth), or both. The splits cause gaps and defects in the affected areas. They are also usually associated with a nose deformity on the same side.

Orofacial clefts, specifically a cleft lip or palate, are among the most common head and neck birth defects. Clefts affect roughly 1 in 700 children worldwide.

In the U.S., cleft lip/palates are most common in Native Americans, Asians, and Latinos. African Americans have the lowest risk of developing orofacial clefts.

Cleft Lip or Palate Health Problems

Cleft palate children may have speech and language problems. However, it can also lead to serious medical and dental issues.

These conditions include:

  • Dental problems, such as missing or misaligned teeth
  • Greater risk for cavities due to weaker enamel and thicker saliva production
  • Hearing problems
  • Ear infections
  • Feeding problems
  • Abnormalities affecting the middle ear
  • Psychosocial issues

Half of all clefts involve both the lip and palate. A cleft that only affects the palate is a less common birth defect.

Other Side Effects of a Cleft Lip and Palate

Common medical conditions associated with cleft lip and palate include:

  • Van der Woude syndrome – Affects facial development
  • CHARGE syndrome – Causes coloboma, heart defects, atresia choanae, and ear abnormalities
  • Apert syndrome – Causes abnormal skull growth and affects the shape of the face and head
  • Pierre Robin sequence – A birth defect that results in a smaller jaw, breathing difficulties, and a tongue that falls back in the throat
  • Kabuki syndrome – A congenital disorder that causes abnormal facial features
  • Klippel Feil syndrome – Causes neck and spine abnormalities and results in a shorter neck
  • Stickler syndrome – Causes eye abnormalities, hearing loss, joint problems, and a flattened facial appearance
  • Treacher-Collins syndrome – Causes ears, eyes, cheekbones, and chin deformities
  • DiGeorge syndrome – A chromosomal disorder that can cause poor heart development, issues with the immune system, and a cleft palate
  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome – Children with this syndrome have an abnormally large tongue, resulting in breathing, swallowing, and speaking difficulties
  • Goldenhar syndrome – A birth defect that causes poor development of the nose, soft palate, lips, mouth, and ears

Types of Cleft Lip

Cleft lips can either be complete or incomplete, which means the splits may or may not extend to the nose. They can also develop on one side (unilateral) or both sides (bilateral) of the upper lip.

There are a few types of cleft lips:

Incomplete Unilateral

Clefts that develop on one side of the upper lip and do not extend into the nose.

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Complete Unilateral

Clefts that develop on one side of the upper lip and extend into the nose.

complete unilateral cleft lip

Incomplete Bilateral

Clefts that appear on both sides of the upper lip but do not extend into the nose.

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Complete Bilateral

Clefts that appear on both sides of the upper lip and extend into the nose.

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Types of Cleft Palate

Like cleft lips, cleft palates can be complete or incomplete, meaning the splits may involve the primary (front) palate, secondary (back) palate, or both.

There are a few types of cleft palates:

Incomplete Cleft Palate

Clefts that develop in the soft palate (back of the mouth).

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Complete Cleft Palate

Clefts that develop in the soft and hard palate on one side of the mouth. The splits extend past the lips and into the nose.

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Unilateral Complete Cleft Palate and Lip

Clefts that develop in the soft and hard palate on one side of the mouth. The splits extend past the lips and into the nose.

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Complete Bilateral Cleft Lip and Palate

Clefts that develop in the soft and hard palate on both sides of the mouth. The splits extend past the lips and into the nose.

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Submucous Cleft Palate

A submucous cleft palate affects the palate and uvula, the teardrop-shaped tissue hanging in the back of your throat. The soft palate and uvula work together to prevent food from going up your nose.

Someone with a submucous cleft palate has a cleft underneath the mucous membrane. This type of cleft is "hidden" and will not be noticeable until the baby is born. It develops in about 1 in 1,200 babies.

Isolated Cleft Palate 

A term used when a cleft occurs in the palate only, with no cleft lip present. One in 2,000 babies are born with this type of cleft. It’s also typically difficult to see.

What Causes Cleft Palate?

Clefts are birth defects caused by genetic and environmental factors. Common reasons a child may develop a cleft lip and/or palate include:

  • Family history of cleft lip and palate
  • Having diabetes during pregnancy is linked to birth defects, such as cleft lips
  • Obesity during pregnancy can increase the risk of cleft lip and palate
  • Exposure to unhealthy substances during pregnancy, such as cigarettes, alcohol, and some medications
  • Exposure to Rubella or other infections

Medications That May Cause a Cleft Palate

Some medications can affect your baby during pregnancy and increase the likelihood of a cleft lip or palate.

These medications include, but are not limited to:

  • Accutane
  • Methotrexate
  • Seizure medications
  • Anticonvulsant medications

How is a Cleft Palate Diagnosed?

A prenatal ultrasound can detect a cleft lip or palate after 16 weeks of pregnancy. The diagnosis is confirmed at birth with a physical examination.

An incomplete cleft lip or an isolated palate may not be seen on an ultrasound. Because of this, these types of clefts can be diagnosed for the first time at birth.

They’ll also perform a comprehensive exam to determine if the cleft involves both the soft and hard palate or the soft palate alone. In some cases, a cleft is diagnosed on a fetal MRI.

Phases of Cleft Palate Treatment

Children born with a cleft lip, palate, or both require multiple phases of treatment starting from birth and into early adulthood (18+ years old). Treatment typically includes: 

  • Adhesions
  • Repairs
  • Surgeries
  • Bone grafts
  • Orthodontic treatment

Cleft lip and palate repairs are performed by a plastic surgeon, pediatric otolaryngologist, or an oral and maxillofacial surgeon with extensive training in pediatric craniomaxillofacial surgery. There are a few phases of treatment throughout childhood, depending on the child’s needs. 

Birth Infant Orthopedic Treatment, Lip Repair, and Lip Adhesion

Children with cleft lip and palate from birth require pre-surgical infant orthopedics (PSIO). In particular, this procedure reshapes nasal and alveolar segments before cleft lip surgery.

Most babies typically have surgery early in life to repair cleft lip and palate, typically between 3 and 6 months of age. A nasolabial (lip) adhesion may also be necessary before repairing the cleft lip to reduce tension and speed up recovery.

Palate Repair (1 Year)

A cleft palate repair is completed between 9 and 18 months, typically around age 1. Early palate repair allows for better speech development. 

Repairing the defect early creates more scar tissue and may lead to improper mouth growth, improper bite, and poor facial esthetics. Orthodontic treatment is typically necessary later on to correct these issues. If palate repair is completed after 18 months, speech can be negatively impacted.

Velopharyngeal Surgery (2-3 Years)

Velopharyngeal insufficiency (VPI) occurs when the soft palate does not close tightly against the back of the mouth. This typically leads to abnormal speech and/or hypernasality. Velopharyngeal surgery is completed around 3 years of age if a child’s speech does not improve.

Alveolar Bone Grafts and Maxillary Expansion (5-9 Years)

After a cleft lip and palate repair, a surgeon performs alveolar bone graft surgery a few years later. The surgery adds bone to the gum ridge in children born with clefts. In addition, the bone graft must be completed as a child begins to lose their baby teeth before permanent teeth grow.

Phase I Orthodontic Treatment (11 Years)

As baby teeth fall out and permanent teeth grow in (the mixed dentition phase), the first round of orthodontic treatment occurs. Orthodontic treatment typically: 

  • Aligns the roof of the mouth 
  • Fixes crossbites 
  • Creates space for erupting permanent teeth
  • Treats impacted teeth

Phase II Orthodontic Treatment (13-15 Years)

By age 13, all permanent teeth have erupted. An additional phase of orthodontic treatment may also be necessary to align teeth and fix any dental abnormalities.

Orthognathic Surgery and Final Restorative Care (18+ Years)

Orthognathic surgery is an operation that corrects the alignment of the jaws. It may be necessary after the cleft lip repair, bone graft surgery, and orthodontic treatment.

How Do You Prevent Cleft Palate in Babies?

Ways to help prevent cleft lip during pregnancy include:

  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Do not drink alcohol
  • Take folic acid supplements (600 micrograms per day)
  • Do not smoke cigarettes, recreational drugs, or other tobacco products
  • Make sure the medications you are taking during pregnancy are safe
  • Make sure you are free from infections
  • Gain a healthy amount of weight
  • Get prenatal care during pregnancy

Cleft Palate: Questions and Answers

What causes a cleft palate during pregnancy?

What a mother drinks and eats during pregnancy may cause a cleft lip/palate. Certain medications, as well as environmental factors, can also contribute to the development of craniofacial anomalies.

One study found that cleft lip and palate may be linked to low folic acid intake, as well as abusing alcohol and smoking while pregnant.

What stage of pregnancy does cleft palate develop?

A baby's mouth and nose develop in a mother's womb between the 5th and 12th weeks. A primary cleft palate will form during early pregnancy, between the 4th and 7th weeks. A secondary cleft palate will develop between the 8th and 12th weeks of pregnancy.

Can cleft lip and palate be detected in ultrasound?

A cleft lip is easier to detect in an ultrasound than a cleft palate that occurs alone. In many cases, a cleft lip will appear in an ultrasound around 13 weeks (after the baby's nose and mouth fully develop).

Can a baby with cleft lip/palate breastfeed?

Most babies who have cleft lips and cleft palates can still breastfeed. Cleft palates, however, often make sucking more difficult.

What deficiencies cause cleft palate?

Vitamin B and folic acid deficiencies during pregnancy are linked to cleft lip and palate in babies.

Is a cleft lip hereditary?

Genetics may play some role in the development of cleft lips/palates.

How many surgeries does it take to fix a cleft palate?

If your child has a cleft lip and palate, treatment will be separated into several surgeries. The first surgery corrects the cleft lip, while the second repairs the cleft palate. Other surgeries may also be required, depending on the severity of the condition.

Can cleft lip be prevented?

Cleft lips/palates can't always be prevented. However, since folic acid deficiencies can cause cleft palates during pregnancy, mothers should take folic acid supplements (400 micrograms a day).

Last updated on September 1, 2023
6 Sources Cited
Last updated on September 1, 2023
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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