Cleft lip and cleft palate: what it is and what can be done

What do King Tutankhamun, Peyton Manning, Tom Brokaw, Jesse Jackson, and Stacy Keach all have in common?  It is an interesting group, isn’t it?  The one thing they all share is that they were all born with a cleft lip, a cleft palate, or even both.  About 4,200 babies are born each year in the United States with cleft lip/palate.  A cleft occurs when either the lip or the palate (or both) does not close completely.  These birth defects occur very early in gestation—the lip usually closes by about 5-6 weeks after conception and the palate is formed by 7 weeks.

How does this happen?  Well for the most part, we are not quite sure.  Most likely a number of genes and environmental factors play a role.  Some studies have shown that folic acid may help prevent oral-facial clefts—yet another good reason to make sure you take that 400mcg of folic acid before and during your early pregnancy!  We also know that some ethnic groups have a higher rate of clefts.  Cleft lip and palate occurs more frequently in certain Native American groups and Asians than it does in Caucasians.  It is least common in African Americans.  Isolated cleft palate, however, occurs less often (2,600 babies each year) and among all ethnic groups equally.

Babies born with clefts share a few common problems.  The first is feeding.  Although isolated cleft lip usually doesn’t disrupt feeding, a cleft palate definitely can.  An opening in the roof of the mouth is going to make it difficult for a baby to really be able to suck milk through a small opening efficiently.  Some may have problems with gagging, choking, or milk coming out of their nose.  There are specially made bottles that can help with these issues.  Breastfeeding is still strongly encouraged.  Although nursing can be very difficult, a mom can pump and use the special bottle to feed the baby.

Babies with clefts can also have speech problems, dental issues, and more frequent ear infections.  That is why most children born with clefts are seen by a team of specialists that includes a pediatrician, a dentist, an ENT (ear, nose, and throat specialist), and a speech-language specialist, an audiologist (hearing specialist) and a genetic counselor.  That team can help with any issues that may arise.

Surgery is used to repair cleft lip and cleft palate but the timing depends on the type of repair needed.  Cleft lip is frequently repaired by about 3 months of age and cleft palate between 6-18 months of age.  Sometimes children will need additional surgeries as they grow.  The March of Dimes has spent $6.9 million  in the past ten years trying to figure out why clefts happen and how to prevent them.  For more information you can check out the Cleft Palate Association.  If you have any specific questions feel free to email us at

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6 Responses to “Cleft lip and cleft palate: what it is and what can be done”

  1. Rebecca Schaffer Says:

    Thank you for posting this. I was a cleft palate and lip child.

    If people are around the Fargo,ND area, check out Dr Lamb. He is amazing. He is part of the yearly cleft palate/lip clinic that is held in this area every year.

  2. Sara Says:

    Hi Rebecca. Thanks for stopping by News Moms Need. Glad you found the information helpful.

  3. Lsmith Says:

    I agree – really great post with lots of helpful information. I would also suggest checking out Operation Smile if you are looking for more information on cleft lip and palate surgery or ways to help those who need surgeries to correct these types of problems but don’t have the means to do so.

  4. Elysia Wold Says:

    I found several different websites helpful and you can always call a surgen and speak with their office. I found out at 19 weeks my son had a bilat. cleft lip/palate and although it took me a week to stop blaming myself I still found out everything I could knowledge is power and your the best advocate for you baby! When he was born at 34 weeks the nicu kept him for 2 weeks so that gave a chance to find a bottle he would feed from. At first he used the mead johnson nurser with a standard nipple but its not very parent friendly. Every baby is different but if your not sure dont buy alot of one bottle. After 2 months of using this bottle I decided to try the playtex drop in bottles and he does great. Now of course it wont work for every baby so i repeat dont buy alot of them. I just though it would be good to throw the idea out there. Anything that will help you with your baby! Good luck and remember you have no control over it and Drs work wonders now….your baby is a blessing love them unconditionally!!!!

  5. Miley Says:

    <a href= smile train is the BEST organization to donate to! Check out the video and learn more!

  6. Barbie Newsome Says:

    Also don’t forget the Shriners take care of these surgeries with no payment from the families. They take care of my twin sons surgeries. Both born with cleft lip and palate #Newsometwosome