Cleft Lip and Palate: Causes, Types, and Treatment | PreferredMD
Plastic Surgery

Cleft Lip and Palate: Causes, Types, and Treatment

Condition • By Biraj Patel

Cleft lip and palate are common congenital conditions that can affect a child's facial development. These conditions, which occur early in pregnancy, can have significant effects on a child's appearance, speech, and overall health. Let’s delve into the intricacies of cleft lip and palate, exploring their causes, types, preventive measures, treatment options, and potential complications.

What is cleft lip and palate?

Cleft lip and palate are birth defects that occur when certain facial structures do not fully form during fetal development. A cleft lip is a split or opening in the upper lip, while a cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth. These conditions can occur separately or together, leading to a cleft lip and palate.

Causes of cleft lip and palate during pregnancy

The exact causes of cleft lip and palate are not always clear, but they are believed to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. During pregnancy, various factors can increase the risk of a baby being born with these conditions. Maternal smoking, alcohol consumption, and certain medications are among the environmental factors that have been associated with an increased risk of cleft lip and palate.

Signs of cleft lip and palate 

Signs of cleft lip and palate can vary based on the severity of the condition. A visible gap or split in the lip or palate is the most noticeable sign. Other symptoms may include difficulty feeding, nasal speech, hearing problems, and dental issues. Timely medical evaluation and intervention can help address these symptoms and improve the child's quality of life.

Types of cleft lip and palate

There are several types of cleft lip and palate, each characterized by the location and extent of the opening in the lip and/or palate. The severity of the cleft can vary, and it may affect one or both sides of the face. 

Unilateral cleft lip

In this type, there is a single opening on one side of the upper lip, extending towards the nostril. It is the most common form of cleft lip and can vary in severity, from a small notch to a larger gap.

Bilateral cleft lip

This type involves two openings on both sides of the upper lip, extending towards the nostrils. Bilateral clefts can vary in size and may involve both the lip and the nose.

Unilateral cleft palate

A unilateral cleft palate occurs when there is an opening on one side of the roof of the mouth. This opening can extend from the front of the mouth to the back, potentially impacting speech and feeding.

Bilateral cleft palate

Similar to bilateral cleft lip, bilateral cleft palate involves openings on both sides of the palate. This type of cleft can also affect speech, feeding, and overall oral development.

Complete cleft lip and palate

In this type, there is a continuous opening that extends from the upper lip to the roof of the mouth. It can involve one or both sides of the face. Complete cleft lip and palate is more extensive and often requires more complex surgical treatment.

Submucous cleft palate

This type of cleft is less noticeable as it doesn't always have a visible opening in the palate. Instead, it is characterized by a hidden or subtle split in the muscles and tissues that make up the palate. Submucous cleft palate can still cause speech and feeding difficulties.

How to prevent cleft lip and palate during pregnancy?

Certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of cleft lip and palate, including family history, maternal smoking, and inadequate prenatal care. While it may not be possible to prevent all cases, there are steps expectant mothers can take to reduce the risk. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, avoiding harmful substances, and seeking proper prenatal care are crucial steps in secondary prevention.

Diagnosing cleft lip and palate

Cleft lip is usually diagnosed through prenatal ultrasound, while cleft palate may be detected shortly after birth. In addition to the visible physical traits, cleft lip and palate can lead to complications such as feeding difficulties, ear infections, speech delays, and dental problems. Early intervention and a comprehensive treatment plan can help mitigate these challenges.

Cleft lip and cleft palate treatment

The cleft lip and cleft palate treatment typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, which may include surgical intervention, speech therapy, orthodontic treatment, and ongoing medical care. The goal of treatment is to improve functional abilities, such as feeding and speech, and to enhance the child's appearance and overall quality of life. The specific treatment plan will depend on the type and severity of the cleft, as well as the individual needs of the patient. Here is an overview of the common treatment approaches.

Cleft lip and palate surgery

Surgical intervention is a primary component of cleft lip and palate treatment. Cleft lip repair is usually performed when the child is a few months old, often between 3 to 6 months of age. The procedure involves surgically closing the cleft and reconstructing the upper lip to improve its appearance and function.

Cleft palate repair typically takes place around 9 to 18 months of age. During this procedure, the surgeon closes the opening in the palate, allowing for proper speech and feeding development. Subsequent surgeries may be needed as the child grows to refine the results and address any issues that arise.

Speech therapy

Children with cleft lip and palate may experience speech difficulties due to the structural differences in their oral cavity. Speech therapy plays a crucial role in helping children develop clear and intelligible speech. Speech therapists work with the child to improve articulation, resonance, and overall communication skills.

Orthodontic treatment

Orthodontic care may be necessary to address dental and jaw alignment issues associated with cleft lip and palate. Orthodontists use braces and other devices to guide the growth and alignment of teeth and jaws, helping to create a more balanced and functional bite.

Ongoing medical care

Children with cleft lip and palate require regular medical follow-up to monitor their growth, development, and overall health. Ear infections and hearing problems are common in children with cleft palate, so regular ear examinations and treatments may be necessary.

Psychosocial support

Living with cleft lip and palate can have emotional and psychological effects on both the child and their family. Psychosocial support and counseling services are important to help families cope with the challenges and to ensure the child's emotional well-being.

Additional surgeries

In some cases, additional surgeries may be required as the child grows. These surgeries may address issues such as speech difficulties, dental issues, or cosmetic concerns.

Rehabilitation and follow-up

Rehabilitation and follow-up care continue throughout the child's development to ensure that the treatment plan remains effective and to address any emerging issues.

Discuss cleft lip repair with top plastic surgeons on PreferredMD

Cleft lip and palate treatment is highly individualized, and the specific approach may vary based on the patient's needs and the recommendations of the medical team. Early intervention and a comprehensive, coordinated effort among various healthcare professionals are key to achieving the best possible outcomes for individuals with cleft lip and palate. Book a consultation with a specialist from PreferredMD. Our physician network comprises hand-selected specialists that have been thoroughly evaluated by their peers and patients. 

Share article