Cleft Lip

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Cleft Lip

Topic Overview

What is cleft lip?

Cleft lip is a treatable birth defect that occurs when the tissues of the upper jaw and nose do not join as expected during fetal development, resulting in a split (cleft) in the lip. A cleft lip typically does not cause health problems. Some infants with cleft lip have difficulty feeding.

Cleft lip usually involves only one side of the upper lip. It rarely occurs in the lower lip. Cleft lip often occurs with cleft palate. These are the most common birth defects of the head and neck.

What causes cleft lip?

Cleft lip may be caused by genetic and environmental factors. If you were born with a cleft palate or cleft lip, your children will have an increased risk for being born with one of these.

A baby may be at higher risk for being born with cleft lip if during pregnancy the mother uses certain medicines, is exposed to radiation or infections, takes illegal drugs, smokes, or drinks alcohol.

What are the symptoms?

A cleft lip is visible at birth. Beyond the distinctive physical appearance, no other symptoms usually are noticed. Babies with cleft lip typically do not have any problems breast-feeding or bottle-feeding. But babies with both cleft lip and cleft palate may have feeding problems. See a picture of a cleft palate.

How is cleft lip diagnosed?

Cleft lip usually is diagnosed at birth from the distinct way a newborn's face looks. A baby's first physical examination shortly after birth can provide more details about the condition, such as whether the baby also has a cleft palate.

Sometimes a fetal ultrasound during pregnancy can detect a cleft lip. But fetal ultrasound is not always reliable for this purpose.

How is it treated?

Surgery is always needed to treat cleft lip. When the surgery takes place depends on a number of things, including what your doctor suggests, your baby's health, and the cleft itself. Most doctors agree that cleft lip should, in most cases, be repaired by the time a baby is 3 to 6 months old.

The exact timing of treatment and surgery takes into account the severity of the cleft lip, the size and health of the baby, and other concerns the health care team may have for the baby.

The type of surgery to correct a cleft lip depends on how much of the lip is involved, whether the baby has any defects of the nose, and whether cleft palate is also present. Additional surgeries may be done as the child grows. These can help the mouth adapt and to improve the appearance of a scar. The number and type of surgeries depend on other aspects of your baby's health, such as whether other facial defects are present. For example, if your baby's nose is irregularly shaped, additional surgery may be done later to correct it for health or cosmetic reasons.

Other treatment is specific to the kinds of problems that can occur, such as speech therapy for word pronunciation problems.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about cleft lip:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Symptoms

A cleft lip is obvious at birth. Beyond the distinctive physical appearance, a cleft lip usually does not cause other symptoms or feeding problems. Babies born with cleft lip often can breast-feed successfully. And bottle-feeding usually is not a problem if you use special nipples with hole openings that are slightly bigger than newborns usually require.

Feeding problems usually only occur in babies with cleft lip if they also have cleft palate.

Usually cleft lip is not related to other health problems. But cleft lip with cleft palate can be linked to other health conditions, such as fetal alcohol syndrome or chromosomal disorders. A baby born with cleft lip who has other physical abnormalities or symptoms, such as an irregularly shaped head or respiratory problems, will be evaluated for these other types of health problems.

Examinations and Tests

Diagnosis of cleft lip is based on a physical examination of your baby's mouth. Cleft lip usually is obvious at birth because of distinctive facial characteristics. A baby with cleft lip should be examined carefully for the presence of other birth defects, such as cleft palate.

If cleft lip occurs with cleft palate, it is sometimes associated with another health condition, such as fetal alcohol syndrome or chromosomal disorders. For this reason, it is important for children to be evaluated for other conditions beginning at birth, especially if other symptoms are present, such as other facial deformities or learning disabilities.

Some children with cleft lip may need testing for complications, such as speech and hearing problems.

Early detection

Fetal ultrasound can sometimes detect cleft lip as early as 14 to 16 weeks of gestation. But fetal ultrasound is not reliable for this purpose. Cleft lip may go completely undetected, or its appearance on the ultrasound may be misinterpreted.

Cleft lip or cleft palate can be passed down through families (inherited). If you have a family history of cleft lip or cleft palate, you may benefit from genetic counselling. A genetic counsellor can help you understand your chances of having a child with a cleft lip or cleft palate.

Sometimes an inherited disease or condition causes a number of defects that includes cleft lip and/or cleft palate. If you have had a fetal ultrasound that shows your fetus is likely to have cleft lip and/or cleft palate along with other defects, you may decide to have genetic counselling along with amniocentesis or karyotype testing. These tests and genetic counselling can help you learn whether your fetus is likely to have a condition caused by chromosomes that aren't normal. Karyotype testing can also be done after your baby is born.

Treatment Overview

Surgery is always needed to treat cleft lip, and sometimes multiple procedures are needed over several years. Some treatments, such as speech therapy, may continue into early adulthood.

Your child's doctor or a health care team will examine your newborn before your baby goes home from the hospital. These professionals can tell you how to care for your child before surgery.

Before surgery

Sometimes cleft lip is treated with presurgical supports, such as special dental splints, soft dental moulding inserts, or medical adhesive tape. A child with a cleft lip and palate may be treated with presurgical supports.

Surgical repair of cleft lip

When the surgery takes place depends upon a number of things, including what your doctor suggests, your baby's health, and the cleft itself. Most doctors agree that cleft lip should, in most cases, be repaired by the time your baby is 3 to 6 months old.1

When deciding on the timing and type of surgery needed to repair a cleft lip, the doctor considers factors that relate to the classification of the cleft and the baby's overall condition. Such considerations include:

  • Whether the cleft is complete or incomplete. A complete cleft lip is a deep split in the upper lip that extends into one or both sides of the nose. An incomplete cleft lip affects only one side of the upper lip and may appear as a slight indentation or as a deep notch. See a picture that shows a complete cleft lip and an incomplete cleft lip.
  • How much of the lip is involved. A cleft lip can affect one side of the upper lip (unilateral) or both sides (bilateral).
  • Whether the baby has a cleft palate or any defects of the nose. Usually, any additional facial disfigurements make surgical treatment more complex.
  • The size and health of the baby.
  • Whether it is possible that the baby has a broader health condition.

After surgery

After surgery to correct a cleft lip, your baby may need to wear a head bonnet across the upper lip and taped to the cheeks, face, and head. The bonnet is made of a strap bandage reinforced with wire. This device helps prevent the lip from stretching and protects the stitches from breaking or separating. The head bonnet is worn for as long as it takes your child's lip to heal.

Your baby's arm movements may be restricted with splints or other material for as long as 3 weeks. This is sometimes needed to prevent your baby from touching and damaging the stitches.

After your baby's surgery, you will need to:

  • Take measures to prevent infection and promote healing. Your health care team will offer guidance, but in general make sure you keep the area clean and protect the lip from injury.
  • Make sure your child is eating and drinking well. Feeding by bottle or at the breast usually doesn't require any special measures.

A health care team will closely monitor your child. It is a good idea to have a children's (pediatric) dentist for your child's general dental care and to consult an orthodontist as your child grows.

Usually the lip heals well after surgery, with very little evidence of the cleft. Sometimes there is a slight scar, but it is not usually very noticeable. Males usually develop normal facial hair growth on their upper lip as they mature. Some males grow mustaches to hide the scar. Females usually can cover the scar with makeup and lipstick. Sometimes another lip surgery is needed at 4 or 5 years of age. And surgery on the nose may not be done until adolescence.

Preventing cleft lip

Experts are still trying to find answers about why some babies are born with cleft lip. Although sometimes cleft lip is passed down through families (inherited), in most cases the cause is not known. Research continues on how genes and a mother's health—what she eats and drinks and what hazards she is exposed to during pregnancy—can result in the fetus developing cleft lip. Studies show that if you smoke or drink alcohol during pregnancy, you may increase the risk that your child will be born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.

Take good care of yourself before and during pregnancy. You can do some things to help prevent your fetus from developing cleft lip or cleft palate, such as eating foods rich in folate and taking prenatal vitamins and folic acid supplements. If you are planning a pregnancy and you have neither previous family history of cleft lip or palate nor a child with cleft lip or palate, experts recommend that you take a multivitamin with 0.4 mg (400 mcg) to 1 mg (1000 mcg) of folic acid daily. Experts suggest that you do this for at least 3 months before you get pregnant and throughout your pregnancy and postpartum period. If you have a child with a cleft lip or palate or if you have a family history of cleft lip or palate, then a higher dose [up to 5 mg (5000 mcg)] of folic acid may be recommended by your doctor. Do not try to reach this amount of folic acid by taking more multivitamins. Taking more than the recommended amount of multivitamins means that you will also get more of the other vitamins and minerals in the pill, and that can be harmful.2 Supplements containing larger amounts of folic acid require a prescription from your doctor.

Also, do not drink alcohol or smoke while you are pregnant.

Home Treatment

Before your newborn goes home from the hospital, your child's doctor or a health care team will examine your baby and can tell you how to care for your child before surgery. After surgery to correct a cleft lip, you'll need to keep your baby's lip and nose area clean and free of infection. You will get specific instructions to guide you through this process. For example, the doctor may tell you to:

  • Clean the lip and nose area in a certain way.
  • Apply a generous coating of antibacterial ointment to the area after cleaning, typically for the first 3 days after the surgery.

Caring for a child with a birth defect requires extra time, patience, and energy. Although it is easy to ignore your own needs, remember that it is important that you be physically and emotionally healthy in order to give your child the best care.

What to think about

If your child is born with cleft lip, it is normal to experience concerns and feelings, including anger, fear, guilt, depression, or denial. You may find it helpful to talk with your child's doctor or see a counsellor. Also, you may find a support group helpful. A support group allows you to interact with other parents who have babies with cleft lip.

Fortunately, cleft lip is usually corrected with surgery with only slight scarring. During the first weeks or months before surgery can be done, you may wonder how your friends, relatives, other children, and even strangers will react to your baby's appearance. Try to focus on building a bond with your baby. The rest will fall into place over time.

It may be helpful to talk to your other children about the condition. Let them know that no one is responsible, that it does not hurt, and that it can be corrected with surgery.

As your child grows, consider explaining how clefts develop. Emphasize your pride and love for your child, who successfully handled surgery as a baby. Convey that being born with a cleft lip has been a part of making your child strong and special. Teach your child how to answer questions from peers and adults about the scar. You can help minimize concerns or self-consciousness about the scar by helping your child understand and accept it as one of many life experiences.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Hospital for Sick Children, Cleft Lip and Palate Program
555 University Avenue
Toronto, ON  M5G 1X8
Phone: (416) 813-1500
Web Address: www.sickkids.ca/cleftlip
 

The Hospital for Sick Children, Cleft Lip and Palate Program provides information, education, and support to patients, families, and health professionals. The program offers multiple teaching pamphlets and booklets for this purpose.


AboutFace
123 Edward Street
Suite 1003
Toronto, ON MSG 1E2
Phone: 1-800-665-FACE (1-800-665-3223)
(416) 597-8494
Email: info@aboutfaceinternational.org
Web Address: www.aboutfaceusa.org
 

AboutFace is a non-profit international organization that provides information, support, and other resources to people who have facial differences. They have information on cleft palate, cleft lip, and other conditions.


American Society of Plastic Surgeons
444 East Algonquin Road
Arlington Heights, IL  60005
Phone: (847) 228-9900
Web Address: www.plasticsurgery.org
 

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) is the largest plastic surgery specialty organization in the world. This site has news on the latest advances and techniques of specific surgical procedures. It includes information on how to prepare for surgery, types of anesthesia used, recovery time, and average costs. You can find a qualified surgeon in your area, view before-and-after photographs, and read patient stories.


Cleft Palate Foundation
1504 East Franklin Street
Suite 102
Chapel Hill, NC  27514-2820
Phone: 1-800-24-CLEFT (1-800-242-5338)
(919) 933-9044
Email: info@cleftline.org
Web Address: www.cleftline.org
 

The Cleft Palate Foundation is a nonprofit organization that has information for children, adults, and families affected by clefts and other craniofacial birth defects. It was founded by the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association, an international nonprofit group of health professionals who are involved in treatment and/or research of craniofacial conditions.

The Web site has information about treatment, feeding, dental care, speech, hearing, and more. You can call the toll-free phone number to get medical information and to find support groups.


KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens
10140 Centurion Parkway North
Jacksonville, FL  32256
Phone: (904) 697-4100
Fax: (904) 697-4220
Web Address: www.kidshealth.org
 

This Web site is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health, from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This Web site offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly e-mails about your area of interest.


March of Dimes
1275 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY  10605
Phone: (914) 997-4488
Web Address: www.marchofdimes.com
 

The March of Dimes tries to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and early death. March of Dimes supports research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies' lives. The organization's Web site has information on premature birth, birth defects, birth defects testing, pregnancy, and prenatal care. You can sign up to get a free newsletter and also explore Understanding Your Newborn: An Interactive Program for New Parents.


References

Citations

  1. Beers MH, et al., eds. (2006). Craniofacial abnormalities. Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, 18th ed., pp. 2422–2424. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories.
  2. Wilson DR (2007). Pre-conceptual vitamin/folic acid supplementation 2007: The use of folic acid in combination with a multivitamin supplement for the prevention of neural tube defects and other congenital anomalies. SOGC Clinical Practice Guideline No. 201 (replaces No. 138). Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, 29(12): 1003–1013.

Other Works Consulted

  • Health Canada (2002). Congenital Anomalies in Canada—A Perinatal Health Report, 2002. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
  • Edwards SP, et al. (2007). Cleft lip and palate. In DM Laskin, AO Abubaker, eds., Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, pp. 135–151. Chicago: Quintessence Publishing.
  • Hoffman WY (2008). Cleft lip and palate. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, section 6, pp. 323–339. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Kapp-Simon KA (2006). A brief overview of psychological issues in cleft lip and palate. In S Berkowitz, ed., Cleft Lip and Palate, 2nd ed., pp. 257–261. New York: Springer.
  • Klein U (2009). Cleft lip and palate section of Oral medicine and dentistry. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 429–430. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Mossey PA, et al. (2009). Cleft lip and palate. Lancet, 374(9703): 1773–1785.
  • Rowe LD (2009). Congenital disorders of the oral cavity and lip section of Congenital anomalies of the head and neck. In JB Snow Jr, PA Wackym, eds., Ballenger's Otorhinolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, 17th ed., pp. 835–838. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
  • Shi M, et al. (2007). Orofacial cleft risk is increased with maternal smoking and specific detoxification-gene variants. American Journal of Human Genetics, 80(1): 76–90.
  • Wilcox AJ, et al. (2007). Folic acid supplements and risk of facial clefts: National population based case-control study. BMJ. Published online January 26, 2007 (doi:10.1136/bmj.39079.618287.0B).
  • Wilson DR (2007). Pre-conceptual vitamin/folic acid supplementation 2007: The use of folic acid in combination with a multivitamin supplement for the prevention of neural tube defects and other congenital anomalies. SOGC Clinical Practice Guideline No. 201 (replaces No. 138). Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, 29(12): 1003–1013.
  • Wolfe SA, et al. (2006). Surgical treatment of clefts of the lip and palate from birth to age ten. In S Berkowitz, ed., Cleft Lip and Palate: Diagnosis and Management, 2nd ed., chap. 22, pp. 459–475. Berlin: Springer.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Donald R. Mintz, MD - Otolaryngology
Last Revised June 8, 2010

Last Revised: April 8, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.