I remember seeing a thin scar on my friend’s upper lip, and wondering how she had gotten it. “I was born with a cleft lip,” she said. I became curious about her cleft lip and how it turned into one tiny scar.
A cleft lip is a type of craniofacial abnormality. These are birth defects of the head (cranio) and face (facial) that are present when a baby is born. Another common type is a cleft palate (roof of the mouth). As July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month, it is a good time to learn more about these birth defects.
How does a cleft lip or palate form?
The lips of a baby form by about 6 weeks of pregnancy. When the lip doesn’t form completely and is left with an opening, this is called a cleft lip. A baby’s palate is formed by about 10 weeks of pregnancy. When the palate doesn’t form completely and has an opening, it’s called a cleft palate. A baby can be born with just one of these abnormalities or with both.
Each year in the U.S., about 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate and 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate. The causes of clefts with no other major birth defects among most infants are unknown.
In most cases, cleft lip and cleft palate can be repaired by surgery. Each baby is unique, but surgery to repair cleft lip usually is done at 10 to 12 weeks of age. Surgery for cleft palate usually is done between 9 and 18 months of age. A child may also need more surgery for his clefts as he grows.
My friend had corrective surgery to repair her lip when she was still a baby. Now all that is left is one thin scar above her upper lip leading to her nose, which you can hardly see.
Can these birth defects be prevented?
We are not always sure what causes a cleft lip or palate. However, there are steps a pregnant woman can take to decrease her chance of having a baby with a cleft lip or palate.
• Before pregnancy, get a preconception checkup. This is a medical checkup to help make sure you are healthy before you get pregnant.
• Take a multivitamin that contains folic acid. Take one with 400 micrograms of folic acid before pregnancy, but increase to one with 600 micrograms of folic acid during pregnancy. Your provider may want you to take more – be sure to discuss this with him.
• Talk to your provider to make sure any medicine you take is safe during pregnancy. Your provider may want to switch you to a different medicine that is safer during pregnancy.
• Don’t smoke.
• Don’t drink alcohol.
• Get early and regular prenatal care.