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Each year, approximately one in 700 children around the world are born with a cleft lip and/or a cleft palate. Despite such a large number of children being affected by this condition, there are still many people who are unfamiliar with clefts and the serious impact it can have on a child’s life. With that in mind, here are some of the things you should know about cleft lip and palate.

What is a cleft and what are the causes?

A cleft occurs when certain body parts and structures do not fuse together during foetal development.

Clefts can involve the lip and/or the roof of the mouth, which is made up of both hard and soft palate.

There is no medical consensus on what causes a cleft lip and/or palate. However, most experts agree that the causes of cleft are multi-factorial and may include:

  1. Genes inherited from a child’s parents
  2. Drug and/or alcohol use during pregnancy
  3. Smoking during pregnancy
  4. Maternal illness or infections
  5. Lack of nutrition and vitamin B, also known as folic acid, during pregnancy
  6. Although these factors may act as an explanation for some, in many cases it is not known what causes a cleft lip and/or palate.

What are the complications associated with clefts?

Sadly, cleft defects are frequently overlooked as a cosmetic issue. But in reality, if left untreated, the condition can cause some serious health issues, including:

  1. Difficulty eating
  2. Difficulty breathing
  3. Speech problems
  4. Hearing loss
  5. Dental complications
  6. General wellbeing issues

How is the condition diagnosed?

Cleft lip and palate can be picked up via ultrasound scan, as early as 18 to 21 weeks – this isn’t guaranteed though, as some varieties of the condition can be difficult to detect. If a cleft isn’t picked up at this stage then it will likely be picked up immediately after birth.

It is very common for mothers living in developing countries to find out that their child has a cleft after they have been born, because they do not have access to the medical equipment or resources that can detect the condition.

What is the treatment?

Cleft repair surgery is simple, and the transformation is immediate.

A cleft lip is usually repaired approximately three to six months after birth through surgery.

A cleft palate is typically repaired between seven and 18 months of age through a procedure called ‘palatoplasty’. Palatoplasty involves connecting the muscles of the soft palate and rearranging the tissues to close the cleft. Further treatments are often needed after surgery to treat associated symptoms – for example, rhinoplasty, lip revision surgery, speech therapy or dental care.


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