What is a Cleft Lip and Palate?

A cleft lip and/or palate is a birth defect, in fact it is the most common birth defect in the United States. Approximately one in every 600 newborns are born with either a cleft lip, cleft palate or both.

What exactly is a cleft lip and palate? Cleft simply refers to an opening, therefore a cleft lip is where and opening is left in the lip where tissues did not fuse. A cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth, or palate where tissues did not fully meet. If you look at the lip most everyone has a groove or “seam” under their nose where the tissues finally fused during the early weeks of pregnancy. The palate also has a “seam” line or ridge that runs from front to back that is indication of where the two sides of the mouth grew together sometimes between the 6th and 8th week of pregnancy. A cleft is simply a space or gap where during formation the two sides did not completely fuse.

Does a cleft lip always have a cleft palate? No. Some babies are born with just a cleft lip, where the teeth and palate fuse as expected but there is a gap in the lip. A cleft lip is labeled unilateral if it affects just one side of the lip. In some cases both sides of the lip are cleft, or the cleft is wide enough to reach both sides, that is called a bilateral cleft. Some babies have just a cleft palate and the lip has fully fused. In our case our son had a unilateral cleft lip and a cleft palate.

Why does a cleft lip and palate occur? It is unknown exactly why cleft lip and palate occurs. Sometimes it can be genetically linked in families with several instances occurring. Sometimes it can be environmental; perhaps a tongue or tiny finger was in the way at the moment the tissues needed to fuse together. Like many birth defects there is little parents can do to prevent a cleft lip and palate.

Why is a cleft lip and palate sometimes called a “hare lip”? This is an old reference to a hare, or rabbit that has a natural cleft in their face. You will rarely here this term in a medical setting today as it is outdated and often found offensive. As a parent of a child with a cleft lip and palate I dislike this term immensely and struggle when well meaning people unknowingly use this term.

I have a 12-year-old son who was born with a cleft lip and palate. As with most cleft’s he underwent surgery fairly quickly, at just 10 weeks old. Cleft lip and palate’s can be repaired with various procedures. Some cases will have eating, speech and teeth concerns. Much like children, each cleft is different and unique to the child and each action plan for repair is unique to each child. Gains are being made every year to advance the treatment of cleft lip and palates. Today our son lives a very full normal life with little attention paid to his cleft lip or palate. He has some teeth issues and will be back in braces fairly soon.

If you seek more information about cleft lip and palate the Cleft Palate Foundation is a non-profit organization that hosts a wealth of information and resources. You can visit them on the web at www.cleftline.org

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lucia anna
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Posted on Dec 15, 2010