Cleft lip and cleft palate: causes and prevention

Cleft lip and cleft palate happen when a baby’s lip or mouth doesn’t form completely during pregnancy. Cleft lip is an opening in a baby’s upper lip. Cleft palate is an opening in the roof of a baby’s mouth. Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects. About 1 or 2 in 1,000 babies (less than 1 percent) are born with cleft lip and palate each year in the United States.

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. Cleft lip and palate don’t have to happen together — a baby can have one without the other.

What causes cleft lip and cleft palate?

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 everyday life, like certain medicines you take. Risk factors include:

  • Having a family history of cleft lip and cleft palate
  • Smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy
  • Having diabetes before pregnancy
  • Taking certain anti-seizure medicines during the first trimester of pregnancy, like topiramate or valproic acid
  • Being obese during pregnancy.

How can you reduce your baby’s risk for cleft lip and palate?

Here’s what you can do to reduce your baby’s risk:

  • Take folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin that can help prevent certain birth defects in your baby. Before pregnancy, take a vitamin supplement 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. This is a checkup you get before pregnancy to help make sure you’re healthy when you get pregnant.
  • Get to a healthy weight before pregnancy and talk to your provider about gaining the right 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. This is medical care you get during pregnancy to make sure you and your baby are doing well.
  • Protect yourself from infections. Make sure all your vaccinations are up to date, especially for rubella (also called German measles). Wash your hands often.

Visit marchofdimes.org for more information.

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