Around 1 in 700 babies in the UK is born with a cleft disorder – either cleft lip or palate. During early pregnancy, separate areas of your baby’s face develop individually and then join together. If some parts do not join properly, the result is a ‘cleft’ – which means split or separation. A cleft lip is when there is an opening in the upper lip between the mouth and nose, which looks like a split lip, while a cleft palate occurs when the roof of the mouth hasn’t joined properly. The severity of these conditions can vary.
Why do clefts occur?
The cause of clefts is still unknown. Sometimes they run in families, although in other cases a baby is born with a cleft without anyone else in the family having had one. However, the chance of a cleft lip and / or palate occurring in future brothers and sisters of a child with a cleft is higher than in the general population – at around 1 in 30. They are also more common in males than females.
What can be done to prevent clefts?
Because a cause is unclear, there is little you can do, but it’s thought that some types of drugs taken during pregnancy can increase the risk. These include anticonvulsives (usually taken for epilepsy) and drugs for insomnia and anxiety. Other possible causes include infections during pregnancy, smoking and alcohol use.
Some research has also associated low folic acid levels with cleft disorders, so make sure you are getting the recommended dose.
Will I be able to breastfeed?
In many cases, breastfeeding is possible, but a newborn with a cleft palate may need extra help as it can be hard for her to form a vacuum in her mouth. If breastfeeding is not possible, you can express breast milk for bottle-feeding – there are special teats and bottles available which help a baby to get milk to the back of her throat to swallow.
What can be done?
Once diagnosis of cleft lip and / or palate has been made, it is important to speak to a specialist who will be able to offer emotional support, help with feeding and decide what action needs to be taken.
Surgery is the most common treatment, often over a period of time as the child grows, and varies depending on the severity of the cleft.
A cleft lip is usually operated on at about 3 months old, while a gap in the palate is usually treated later at around 6 months. More surgery may be needed as the child grows to improve the appearance of the lip and nose, and the way the palate works. Gaps in the gum may also be filled with a bone graft. Treatment with a speech therapist may also be necessary and orthodontic treatment to correct the position of the teeth.