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Birth defects

  • Birth defects are health conditions present at birth.
  • They can cause problems in how the body works.
  • About 120,000 babies born each year have a birth defect.
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Cleft lip and cleft palate

A cleft lip is a birth defect in which a baby's upper lip doesn’t form completely and has an opening in it. A cleft palate is a similar birth defect in which a baby’s palate (roof of the mouth) doesn’t form completely and has an opening in it. These birth defects are called oral clefts.

How does a cleft lip affect a baby’s face?

Some babies with cleft lip have just a small notch in the upper lip. Others have a complete opening or hole in the lip that goes through the upper gum to the bottom of the nose. A cleft lip can happen on one or both sides of a baby’s mouth.

How does a cleft palate affect a baby’s mouth?

A cleft palate can affect the soft palate (the soft tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth) or the hard palate (the bony front part of the roof of the mouth). A cleft palate can happen on one or both sides of a baby’s palate.

Do cleft lip and cleft palate always happen together?

No. Some babies have just a cleft lip. But most babies with a cleft lip also have a cleft palate. Some babies have only a cleft palate, which is called an isolated cleft palate.

What problems can oral clefts cause?

Babies and children with oral clefts may have:

When do oral clefts happen?

Oral clefts happen very early in pregnancy. Your baby’s lips are formed by about 6 weeks of pregnancy. Your baby’s palate is formed by about 10 weeks of pregnancy. Oral clefts happen when your baby’s lips or palate or both don’t form completely.

What causes oral clefts?

We’re not sure what causes oral clefts. Some possible causes are:

  • Changes in your baby’s genes. Genes are part of your baby’s cells that store instructions for the way the body grows and works. They provide the basic plan for how your baby develops. Genes are passed from parents to children.
  • Not getting enough folic acid before pregnancy. Folic acid is a vitamin that can help protect your baby from birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects. It also may reduce the risk of oral clefts by about 25 percent.
  • Taking certain medicines, like anti-seizure medicine, during pregnancy
  • Smoking during pregnancy. Smoking causes 1 in 5 (20 percent) oral clefts.
  • Drinking alcohol during pregnancy
  • Having certain infections during pregnancy

Can oral clefts be prevented?

Not all clefts can be prevented. But there are things you can do to help reduce your chances of having a baby with an oral cleft:

  • Before pregnancy, get a preconception checkup. This is a medical checkup to help make sure you are healthy before you get pregnant.
  • Before pregnancy, take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid in it every day.
  • During pregnancy, take a prenatal vitamin with 600 micrograms of folic acid in it every day.
  • Talk to your provider to make sure any medicine you take is safe during pregnancy.
  • Your provider may want to switch you to a different medicine that is safe during pregnancy.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.
  • Get early and regular prenatal care.

How are oral clefts treated?

In most cases, oral clefts can be repaired by surgery. Each baby is unique, but surgery to repair cleft lip usually is done at 10 to 12 weeks of age. Surgery for cleft palate usually is done between 9 and 18 months of age. Your child may need more surgery for oral clefts as he grows.

Your baby gets treated by a team of specialists. Most teams include:

  • Pediatrician. This is a doctor who has special training in taking care of babies and children.
  • Plastic surgeon. This is a doctor who repairs or rebuilds parts of the body to improve how they work and look.
  • Pediatric dentist. This is a dentist who has special training to care for the teeth of babies and children.
  • Orthodontist. This is a dentist who fixes tooth defects and straightens teeth with braces and other methods.
  • Otolaryngologist or ear, nose and throat specialist (also called ENT). This is a doctor who treats problems of the ears, nose and throat.
  • Speech or language specialist. This is a person trained to help with speech problems.
  • Audiologist. This is a person trained to measure hearing loss and fit hearing aids.
  • Genetic counselor. This is a person trained to know about genetics, birth defects and other medical problems that run in families.
  • Social worker. This is a person trained to help find resources and programs, such as health care and special services, for people with disabilities.

 How common are oral clefts?

About 6,800 babies in the United States are born with oral clefts each year.

  • Cleft lip and cleft palate affects about 4,200 babies each year. It is more common in Asians and certain Native Americans.
  • Nearly 2,600 babies are born with isolated cleft palate each year. Isolated cleft palate affects babies of all races about the same.

Can other birth defects happen along with oral clefts?

Yes. There are about 400 health conditions (called syndromes) that are related to oral clefts. If your baby has an oral cleft, his provider checks him thoroughly for other birth defects soon after birth.

Are oral clefts more common in some families?

Yes. If you have family members with oral clefts, you may be more likely to have a baby with an oral cleft. If neither you nor your partner has a cleft but your baby does, and if your baby doesn’t have any kind of syndrome, the chance of you having another baby with a cleft is about 2 to 5 out of 100 (2 to 5 percent).

If you have a family history of oral clefts, or if you’ve had a baby with oral cleft, you can meet with a genetic counselor to find out the chances of having a baby with oral cleft. To find a genetic counselor, you can ask your provider or contact the National Society of Genetic Counselors.

For more information

Cleft Palate Foundation

Last reviewed November 2011

Call your provider now if your baby

  • Has a temperature above 100.4º F
  • Has trouble breathing or is hard to waken
  • Has blood in her vomit or stool
  • Has yellowish skin or eyes
  • Is having a seizure

Frequently Asked Questions

Can dad's exposure to chemicals harm his future kids?

Dad's exposure to harmful chemicals and substances before conception or during his partner's pregnancy can affect his children. Harmful exposures can include drugs (prescription, over-the-counter and illegal drugs), alcohol, cigarettes, cigarette smoke, chemotherapy and radiation. They also include exposure to lead, mercury and pesticides.

Unlike mom's exposures, dad's exposures do not appear to cause birth defects. They can, however, damage a man's sperm quality, causing fertility problems and miscarriage. Some exposures may cause genetic changes in sperm that may increase the risk of childhood cancer. Cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, can seriously alter sperm, at least for a few months post treatment. Some men choose to bank their sperm to preserve its integrity before they receive treatment. If you have a question about a specific exposure, contact the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists at www.otispregnancy.org.

Can Rh factor affect my baby?

The Rh factor may be a problem if mom is Rh-negative but dad is Rh-positive. If dad is Rh-negative, there is no risk.

If your baby gets her Rh-positive factor from dad, your body may believe that your baby's red blood cells are foreign elements attacking you. Your body may make antibodies to fight them. This is called sensitization.

If you're Rh-negative, you can get shots of Rh immune globulin (RhIg) to stop your body from attacking your baby. It's best to get these shots at 28 weeks of pregnancy and again within 72 hours of giving birth if a blood test shows that your baby is Rh-positive. You won't need anymore shots after giving birth if your baby is Rh-negative. You should also get a shot after certain pregnancy exams like an amniocentesis, a chorionic villus sampling or an external cephalic version (when your provider tries to turn a breech-position baby head down before labor). You'll also want to get the shot if you have a miscarriage, an ectopic pregnancy or suffer abdominal trauma.

Does cleft lip or cleft palate cause dental problems?

A cleft lip or cleft palate that extends into the upper gums (where top teeth develop) can cause your baby to have certain dental problems, including:

  • Missing teeth
  • Too many teeth
  • Oddly shaped teeth
  • Teeth that are out of position around the cleft

Every baby with a cleft lip or palate should get regular dental checkups by a dentist with experience taking care of children with oral clefts. Dental problems caused by cleft lip or palate usually can be fixed. If needed, your baby can get ongoing care by a team of experts, including:

  • A dentist
  • An orthodontist to move teeth using braces
  • An oral surgeon to reposition parts of the upper jaw, if needed, and to fix the cleft

See also: Cleft lip and cleft palate

 

Does cleft lip or cleft palate cause ear problems?

Cleft lip does not cause ear problems.

Babies with cleft palate, however, are more likely than other babies to have ear infections and, in some cases, hearing loss. This is because cleft palate can cause fluid to build up in your baby’s middle ear. The fluid can become infected and cause fever and earache. If fluid keeps building up with or without infection, it can cause mild to moderate hearing loss.

Without treatment , hearing loss can affect your baby’s language development and may become permanent.

With the right care, this kind of hearing loss is usually temporary. Your baby’s provider may recommend:

  • Having your baby’s ears checked regularly for fluid buildup
  • Medicines for treating fluid buildup and ear infections
  • Ear tubes if your baby has fluid in his ears over and over again. Ear tubes are tiny tubes that are inserted into the eardrum to drain the fluid and help prevent infections.

See also: Cleft lip and cleft palate

Does cleft lip or cleft palate cause problems with breastfeeding?

Babies with only a cleft lip usually don’t have trouble breastfeeding. Most of the time, they can breastfeed just fine. But they may need some extra time to get started.

Babies with cleft lip and palate or with isolated cleft palate can have:

  • Trouble sucking strong enough to draw milk through a nipple
  • Problems with gagging or choking
  • Problems with milk coming through the nose while feeding

Most babies with cleft palate can’t feed from the breast. If your baby has cleft palate, he can still get the health benefits of breastfeeding if you feed him breast milk from a bottle. Your provider can show you how to express (pump) milk from your breasts and store breast milk.

Your baby’s provider can help you start good breastfeeding habits right after your baby is born. She may recommend:

  • Special nipples and bottles that can make feeding breast milk from a bottle easier
  • An obturator. This is a small plastic plate that fits into the roof of your baby’s mouth and covers the cleft opening during feeding.

See also: Cleft lip and cleft palate, Breastfeeding

Does cleft lip or cleft palate cause speech problems?

Children with cleft lip generally have normal speech. Children with cleft lip and palate or isolated cleft palate may:

  • Develop speech more slowly
  • Have a nasal sound when speaking
  • Have trouble making certain sounds

Most children can develop normal speech after having cleft palate repair. However, some children may need speech therapy to help develop normal speech.

See also: Cleft lip and cleft palate

What are choroid plexus cysts?

The choroid plexus is the area of the brain that produces the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This is not an area of the brain that involves learning or thinking. Occasionally, one or more cysts can form in the choroid plexus. These cysts are made of blood vessels and tissue. They do not cause intellectual disabilities or learning problems. Using ultrasound, a health care provider can see these cysts in about 1 in 120 pregnancies at 15 to 20 weeks gestation. Most disappear during pregnancy or within several months after birth and are no risk to the baby. They aren't a problem by themselves. But if screening tests show other signs of risk, they may indicate a possible genetic defect. In this case, testing with higher-level ultrasound and/or amniocentesis may be recommended to confirm or rule out serious problems.

What if I didn't take folic acid before pregnancy?

If you didn’t take folic acid before getting pregnant, it doesn't necessarily mean that your baby will be born with birth defects. If women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before and during early pregnancy, it may help reduce their baby’s risk for birth defects of the brain and spin called neural tube defects (NTDs). But it only works if you take it before getting pregnant and during the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before you may even know you’re pregnant.

Because nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, it's important that all women of childbearing age (even if they're not trying to get pregnant) get at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. Take a multivitamin with folic acid before pregnancy. During pregnancy, switch to a prenatal vitamin, which should have 600 micrograms of folic acid.

Last reviewed November 2012

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