Cleft Lip and Palate

Splits in the upper lip and the roof of the mouth that are present at birth

  • Present at birth
  • Sometimes runs in families
  • Heavy drinking and using some medical drugs in pregnancy are risk factors
  • Gender is not a significant factor

A cleft upper lip and palate are among the most common defects in babies and affect about 1 in 700 babies in the UK. These conditions may occur singly or together and are present at birth. These conditions can be upsetting for parents, but plastic surgery produces excellent results in most cases.

The defects occur when the upper lip or roof of the mouth does not fuse completely in the fetus. In many cases, the cause is unknown, but the risk is higher if certain anticonvulsant drugs, such as phenytoin, are taken during pregnancy or if the mother is a heavy drinker. Cleft lip and/or palate sometimes run in families.

If a baby is severely affected, he or she may find it difficult to feed at first, and, if the condition is not treated early, speech may be delayed. Children with a cleft lip and/or palate are also susceptible to persistent build-up of fluid in the middle ear (see Chronic secretory otitis media) that impairs hearing and may delay speech.

Cleft lip

This child has a split in the upper lip, known as a cleft lip. This can usually be repaired successfully with plastic surgery.

What might be done?

A cleft lip is usually repaired surgically by the age of 3 months, and a cleft palate is repaired at 6–15 months of age. While waiting for surgery, a plate may be fitted into the roof of the mouth if a baby has feeding problems. Following surgery, a child may have a hearing test (see Hearing tests in children) to check for hearing impairment caused by fluid build-up in the ear. A child may also need speech therapy when he or she begins to talk. Plastic surgery often produces good results and allows speech to develop normally.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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