A cleft palate is a split or opening in the roof of the mouth. A cleft palate can involve the hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), and/or the soft palate (the soft back portion of the roof of the mouth).
Cleft lip and cleft palate can occur on one or both sides of the mouth. Because the lip and the palate develop separately, it is possible to have a cleft lip without a cleft palate, a cleft palate without a cleft lip, or both together.
Who Gets Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate?
Cleft lip, with or without cleft palate, affects one in 700 babies annually and is the fourth most common birth defect in the U.S.; Clefts occur more often in children of Asian, Latino, or Native American descent. Compared with girls, twice as many boys have a cleft lip, both with and without a cleft palate. However, compared with boys, twice as many girls have cleft palate without a cleft lip.
What Causes a Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate?
In most cases, the cause of the cleft lip and cleft palate is unknown. These conditions cannot be prevented. Most scientists believe clefts are due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There appears to be a greater chance of clefting in a newborn if a sibling, parent, or relative has had the problem.
Another potential cause may be related to a medication a mother may have taken during her pregnancy. Some drugs may cause cleft lip and cleft palate. Among them: anti-seizure/anticonvulsant drugs, acne drugs containing Accutane, and methotrexate, a drug commonly used for treating cancer, arthritis, and psoriasis.
Cleft lip and cleft palate may also occur as a result of exposure to viruses or chemicals while the fetus is developing in the womb.
In other situations, cleft lip and cleft palate may be part of another medical condition.
How Are Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Diagnosed?
Because clefting causes very obvious physical changes, a cleft lip or cleft palate is easy to diagnose. Prenatal ultrasound can sometimes determine if a cleft exists in an unborn child. If the clefting has not been detected in an ultrasound prior to the baby’s birth, a physical exam of the mouth, nose, and palate confirms the presence of cleft lip or cleft palate after a child’s birth. Sometimes diagnostic testing may be conducted to determine or rule out the presence of other abnormalities.
Who Treats Children With Cleft Lip and/or Palate?
Due to the number of oral health and medical problems associated with a cleft lip or cleft palate, a team of doctors and other specialists is usually involved in the care of these children. Members of a cleft lip and palate team typically include:
- Plastic surgeon to evaluate and perform necessary surgeries on the lip and/or palate
- An otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) to evaluate hearing problems and consider treatment options for hearing problems
- An oral surgeon to reposition segments of the upper jaw when needed, to improve function and appearance and to repair the cleft of the gum
- An orthodontist to straighten and reposition teeth
- A dentist to perform routine dental care
- A prosthodontist to make artificial teeth and dental appliances to improve the appearance and to meet functional requirements for eating and speaking
- A speech pathologist to assess speech and feeding problems
- A speech therapist to work with the child to improve speech
- An audiologist (a specialist in communication disorders stemming from a hearing impairment); to assess and monitor hearing
- A nurse coordinator to provide ongoing supervision of the child’s health
- A social worker/psychologist to support the family and assess any adjustment problems
- A geneticist to help parents and adult patients understand the chances of having more children with these conditions
The health care team works together to develop a plan of care to meet the individual needs of each patient. Treatment usually begins in infancy and often continues through early adulthood.
Dental Care for Children With Cleft Lips and/or Palates
Generally, the preventive and restorative dental care needs of children with clefts are the same as for other children. However, children with cleft lip and cleft palate may have special problems related to missing, malformed or malpositioned teeth that require close monitoring.
- Early dental care. Like other children, children born with cleft lip and cleft palate require proper cleaning, good nutrition, and fluoride treatment in order to have healthy teeth. Appropriate cleaning with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush should begin as soon as teeth erupt. If a soft children’s toothbrush will not adequately clean the teeth because of the modified shape of the mouth and teeth, a toothette may be recommended by your dentist. A toothette is a soft, mouthwash-containing sponge on a handle that’s used to swab teeth. Many dentists recommend that the first dental visit be scheduled at about 1 year of age or even earlier if there are special dental problems. Routine dental care can begin around 1 year of age.
- Orthodontic care. A first orthodontic appointment may be scheduled before the child has any teeth. The purpose of this appointment is to assess facial growth, especially jaw development. After teeth erupt, an orthodontist can further assess a child’s short and long-term dental needs. After the permanent teeth erupt, orthodontic treatment can be applied to align the teeth.
- Prosthodontic care. A prosthodontist is a member of the cleft palate team. They may make a dental bridge to replace missing teeth or make special appliances called “speech bulbs” or “palatal lifts” to help close the nose from the mouth so that speech sounds more normal. The prosthodontist coordinates treatment with the oral or plastic surgeon and with the speech pathologist.