What are cleft lip and cleft palate?

cleft lipCleft lip and cleft palate occur when a baby’s lip or mouth do not form completely during pregnancy. A cleft lip is an opening in a baby’s upper lip. Cleft palate occurs when a baby’s palate (the roof of the mouth) has an opening in it. 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 each year in the United States.

What causes cleft lip and cleft palate?

Cleft lip and palate happen very early in pregnancy. Your baby’s lips form between 4 and 7 weeks of pregnancy, and the palate forms between 6 and 9 weeks of pregnancy. Oral clefts don’t have to happen together—a baby can have one without the other.

We’re not sure what causes cleft lip and cleft palate. They may be caused by a combination of factors, like genes and things in your environment, such as medicines you may take. Some risk factors include:

  • Smoking.
  • Diabetes. If you have diabetes before pregnancy, you have an increased risk of having a baby with a cleft lip with or without cleft palate, compared to women who do not have diabetes.
  • Taking certain medicines. If you have epilepsy and take anti-seizure medicines (like topiramate or valproic acid) during the first trimester, you’re more likely to have a baby with cleft lip (with or without cleft palate) than women who don’t take these medicines.

How are cleft lip and cleft palate treated?

In most cases, surgery is needed. Each baby is unique, but surgery to repair cleft lip usually is done at 10 to 12 weeks of age. Surgery for cleft palate is done between 9 and 18 months of age. Children who have a cleft lip or palate may need services such as speech therapy and special dental care as they get older.

Can cleft lip and cleft palate be prevented?

These conditions cannot always be prevented. But here are some things you can do to reduce the chance of your baby having a cleft:

  • Take folic acid. 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.
  • Don’t smoke or drink alcohol.
  • Get a preconception checkup.
  • Get to a healthy weight before pregnancy and talk to your provider about gaining a healthy amount of weight during pregnancy.
  • Talk to your provider to make sure any medicine you take is safe during pregnancy. Don’t stop taking any medicine without talking to your provider first.
  • Get early and regular prenatal care.
  • Protect yourself from infections. Make sure all your vaccinations are up to date, especially for rubella. Wash your hands often.

You can learn more about cleft lip and cleft palate on our website.

Have questions? Send them AskUs@marchofdimes.org.

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