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A cleft is when the tissues that make up the sided of the mouth do not come together all the way. There are different kinds of clefts:
Your child may have a cleft in any combination of the lip, hard palate, or the soft palate.
Cleft lip and palate are usually diagnosed by the doctor or other healthcare provider attending the birth. This healthcare provider or your baby’s pediatrician can refer you to specialists who can discuss treatments for your baby. It’s important to get treatment early.
One out of every 700 babies born in the United States will have a cleft. More boys than girls are born with both a cleft lip and palate, but more girls than boys are born with just a cleft palate.
Doctors are not sure what causes clefts, but they probably are due to both genetic and environmental factors.
Things that may increase the chances of having a baby with a cleft lip or cleft palate include:
Cleft lip and palate are usually diagnosed when the doctor attending your birth does a physical exam of your baby. If your doctor thinks your child might have a cleft lip, they could need further tests, like x-rays, for the doctor to see bone structures in the skull.
Sometimes cleft lip or palate can also be seen in an ultrasound of an unborn baby. If you are pregnant and your unborn baby is diagnosed with cleft lip or palate, your doctor may want to get a sample of your amniotic fluid (the liquid surrounding your baby in your uterus) to test for other genetic problems.
Surgery can repair a cleft. The American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association (ACPA) recommends a team approach to treat children with clefts. Usually, a team is made up of the following people:
The team will work together to plan therapies and surgeries that will promote a happy, healthy life for your baby.
Cleft lip and palate cannot always be prevented, but there are things you can do to make them less likely. These include:
When a baby is growing in the mother’s uterus before birth, the left and right sides of the child’s face start out as separate, but they usually fuse together. This happens early in the pregnancy, in the first 4–12 weeks.
During this time, the nose, lips, and mouth form. Sometimes, the lip or the palate (upper part of the mouth) do not fuse together completely. When this happens, the baby will have a cleft lip, cleft palate, or both. Cleft lip and cleft palate are congenital [KAHN-jen-ih-TUHL] defects, which means a child is born with them.
Babies born with a cleft are usually very healthy, but the cleft can cause some challenges. Every child is different. Your child may have problems with eating, drinking, hearing, and speech. The cleft may interfere with jaw growth and development or cause dental problems.
Your baby may have trouble feeding. Babies born with a cleft lip can usually nurse like other babies. Your doctor should talk to you about the possibility of breastfeeding your newborn with cleft lip. Besides its many other benefits, breastfeeding helps to strengthen the mouth and facial muscles. This is particularly helpful for a baby born with cleft lip or palate.
Babies born with a cleft palate will have a hard time making a seal around the nipple to create suction. If your baby is unable to breastfeed, you can use a breast pump and a special bottle designed to make feeding easier. Doctors who specialize in cleft palate can show you the choices available. You may have to try different products to find the one that works best for you and your child.
If your baby has cleft palate, milk may run out of their nose when feeding. This is not a health risk. Have a soft cloth on hand to wipe the milk away. Feed your baby in an upright position to help milk flow down their throat. This will decrease the amount of milk in their nose.
Babies with clefts also tend to swallow more air and need to be burped more often than other children. With time and patience, you can become an expert at feeding your baby.