Cleft lip and palate

A cleft is a gap or split in the upper lip, the roof of the mouth (palate), or sometimes both. It occurs when separate areas of the face do not join together properly when a baby is developing during pregnancy.

The face and upper lip develop between the fifth and ninth weeks of pregnancy. Most clefts are picked up either at the time of the routine 20 week scan, or soon after birth.

The cleft can affect the lip area, the roof of the mouth (palate) or both. The cleft can involve part or all of these areas and may be one-sided (unilateral) or affect both sides (bilateral).

Read more about diagnosing cleft lip and palate.

What causes cleft lip and palate?

The exact cause of clefts is not known. However, evidence suggests they are often caused by a combination of genetic and enviromental factors.

A healthy lifestyle during pregnancy is likely to reduce the risk of a cleft occurring. For example, avoiding smoking and alcohol, having a healthy diet and avoiding excessive weight gain.

Read more information on treatments to help you stop smoking and alcohol in pregnancy.

Cleft lip and palate can occur on its own (non-syndromic) or can sometimes be part of a wider series of birth defects (syndromic).

Read more about the causes of cleft lip and palate.

Who is affected?

A cleft lip and palate is the most common facial birth defect in the UK. One in every 700 babies is born with a cleft. The type of cleft and its severity vary widely between children.

Nearly half of all affected children have a cleft palate. Around a quarter of affected children have a cleft lip and a quarter have both a cleft lip and palate.

Unilateral cleft lip and palate is more common than bilateral cleft lip and palate which accounts for about 10% of all cases. For unknown reasons, left sided cleft lip and palate is twice as common as right sided cleft lip and palate.

A cleft lip or combined cleft lip and palate are more common in boys, but a cleft palate on its own is more common in girls.

Treating cleft lip and palate

In England and Wales, there are nine specialist cleft lip and palate centres, with separate specialist networks in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Surgery is the usual treatment for cleft lip and palate, with good results. Other forms of treatment may also be required depending on the type of cleft, such as speech and language therapy and orthodontics. After treatment most children have a normal appearance with minimal scarring and normal speech.

All types of treatment for cleft lip and palate are available on the NHS. A long-term, structured care plan from a team of cleft specialists is usually needed to help children born with clefts.

Excellent results are possible with well-coordinated treatment provided by specialists working together within a dedicated cleft lip and palate centre.

Learn more about treatment for cleft lip and palate.

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