What causes clefts and facial birth defects?

July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month. A cleft lip is a birth defect in which a baby’s upper lip doesn’t form completely and has an opening in it. A cleft palate is a similar birth defect in which a baby’s palate (roof of the mouth) doesn’t form completely and has an opening in it. These birth defects are called oral clefts.

Babies and children with oral clefts may have feeding problems, ear infections and hearing loss, speech problems and dental problems.

We’re not sure what causes oral clefts. Some possible causes are:
• Changes in your baby’s genes. Genes are part of your baby’s cells that store instructions for the way the body grows and works. They provide the basic plan for how your baby develops. Genes are passed from parents to children.
• Not getting enough folic acid before pregnancy. Folic acid is a vitamin that can help protect your baby from birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects. It also may reduce the risk of oral clefts by about 25 percent.
• Taking certain medicines, like anti-seizure medicine, during pregnancy
• Smoking during pregnancy. Smoking causes 1 in 5 (20 percent) oral clefts.
• Drinking alcohol during pregnancy
• Having certain infections during pregnancy

Not all clefts can be prevented. But there are things you can do to help reduce your chances of having a baby with an oral cleft:
• Before pregnancy, get a preconception checkup. This is a medical checkup to help make sure you are healthy before you get pregnant.
• Before pregnancy, take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid in it every day.
• During pregnancy, take a prenatal vitamin with 600 micrograms of folic acid in it every day.
• 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 safe during pregnancy.
• Don’t smoke.
• Don’t drink alcohol.
• Get early and regular prenatal care.

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