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Different parts of your baby develop during different stages of pregnancy. In the first trimester, your baby’s head and face take shape. It’s during the first 12 weeks that a few factors could lead to your baby being born with a cleft lip or cleft palate or both. While these problems are not frequent, they are common and can be addressed. Children born with a cleft lip often lead a normal, healthy life with treatment.

Help for a cleft lip is available

Although doctors are not entirely certain about what causes a cleft lip, there are a few general things pregnant mothers can do to prevent them. With proper prenatal care and prevention during pregnancy, you may be able to avoid having a child with a cleft lip. If your child is born with a cleft lip, a cleft palate, or both, there are many pediatric services and specialty teams to help you lead your child through recovery.

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What is a cleft lip? What is a cleft palate?

A “cleft” is a split. During fetal development, the two sides of your face come together in the middle and join in a central seam. However, if something goes wrong, the two sides won’t join, creating a split down the middle.

A cleft lip can look different and affect a person to different degrees. (diagram)
A cleft lip can look different and affect a person to different degrees.

Sometimes, the split is only on the inside of the mouth – only in the person’s palate – and does not extend to their lips. Other times, the person shows a cleft lip, which can look like the two sides of their top lip are not attached to each other. Some people can have a cleft palate or lip on both sides of their mouth, and cleft lips have been known to go up someone’s face to their nose at times.

 What causes a cleft lip?

Researchers have not discovered one direct cause for cleft palates and lips, however, there are a few identifiable factors:

  • Genetics: Family members born with cleft lips or palates may be an indication that your or your partner’s DNA could affect your chances of having a child with one.
  • Pre-natal smoking & drinking: Mothers who drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes while pregnant may have a higher chance of having a baby with a cleft lip or palate. Especially those who smoke or drink in the first trimester (3 months) of pregnancy.
  • Pre-natal medications: Mothers who take certain prescription medications may increase their risk of having a child with a cleft palate or lip. If you’re pregnant or plan to become pregnant, talk to your doctor immediately about the risks associated with your prescriptions.

Take pre-natal vitamins

Fortunately, pregnant mothers can also decrease their risk of having a child with a cleft lip by taking pre-natal vitamins and having regular medical checkups throughout their pregnancy.

How is a cleft lip diagnosed?

Often when a baby is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate, it is immediately identifiable. At their newborn examination, the doctor may check the baby’s mouth specifically, or you can request that they do so.

Some types of cleft palate or lip may not be able to be seen easily, but some symptoms can indicate that there may be a split in the tissue below the baby’s outer skin.

Ask your pediatrician about the possibility of a cleft palate or cleft lip if your baby has trouble feeding, gets frequent ear infections, or has difficulty speaking once he or she has reached that age.

Children born with a cleft lip can go on to enjoy happy, normal lives.
Children born with a cleft lip can go on to enjoy happy, normal lives.

What is done about a cleft lip?

Often, a surgery can repair the split tissue and bring the tissues that don’t attach together. Sometimes, it may take multiple surgeries, depending on the situation and when the cleft is discovered. People who are diagnosed and undergo surgery often eat, speak, and have full function of all parts of their mouth. Others need speech or other oral therapies to learn to function normally. At times, some people with scarring from a cleft lip or cleft palate may become self-conscious, and there are support groups for people to share their stories.

Talk to your pediatrician

Although it’s not the most common or the most dangerous of birth conditions, it is common enough for you to consider. Common enough for experienced pediatricians to identify and know how to address. If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, or if you’re concerned your child may have a cleft lip, talk to your pediatrician. They can refer you to the right resources for your baby.