COVID-19: Screening, Updates, Visitor Policy

My baby has cleft lip and palate. What does this mean?

Chile with cleft lip

Cleft lip and palate are facial and oral birth defects that develop when tissue in the baby’s mouth and lip does not fully form during pregnancy. One in 1,000 children in the U.S. are born with the condition, and it can include a cleft lip (separation of lip tissue causing a gap), separated palate (roof of the mouth) or both.

Due to improved technology, a cleft lip sometimes is identified before birth during an ultrasound and parents can discuss treatment options ahead of time. It’s not clear what causes the condition, but around thirty percent of cases are linked to genetics that may run in the family.

“It can be overwhelming to learn that your baby will be born with cleft lip or palate,” says Krishna G. Patel, M.D. Ph.D., MUSC Health ENT Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon. “Thanks to our maternal/fetal program at MUSC Health, I often meet parents before they deliver and hopefully help to put them at ease by letting them know this is a common and treatable diagnosis.”

What are the effects of cleft lip and palate?

The effects of cleft palate can be serious if left untreated, as it affects both the nose and mouth. A cleft palate inhibits a baby’s ability to create suction, thereby preventing the ability to gain nutrients with a standard bottle or breastfeeding. However, there are specialized bottles that enable babies to get nourishment without them having to create suction.

As babies grow, they learn to eat without relying on suction and the ability to feed becomes easier. However, if the cleft palate remains unrepaired, then as the child learns to speak the sounds cannot be formed properly and words are not clear. This impacts the child’s ability to communicate verbally and can lead to social or self-esteem issues.

“I have a family member who was born with cleft lip and palate,” says Dr. Patel. “I watched her strength and resilience as she grew up and underwent surgeries, and it made me appreciate how challenging it can be. Today, she is a beautiful and accomplished young woman, and I wish the same for all children going through this experience.

What are treatment options?

We try to surgically repair a cleft lip when a baby weighs around ten pounds or is around three months of age and try to repair a cleft palate around ten to twelve months of age. Most patients must be seen for a check-up every year and the necessary long-term care is important. Specific care steps must occur at various ages until the patient is eighteen years old. For example, dental and orthodontal care may be needed to align the jaw and teeth, while nasal surgery may be needed to improve breathing. Through the MUSC Health craniofacial anomalies, cleft lip and cleft palate multidisciplinary team, all elements of care can happen in one location, including facial plastic surgery, oral and maxillofacial surgery, neurosurgery, dental and orthodontal care, feeding and speech therapy, hearing assessment, mental health care, and much more. The MUSC Health craniofacial anomalies and cleft lip and cleft palate team is one of only two nationally accredited teams in the state of South Carolina.

“Our team is composed of medical providers who love what they do, and we are dedicated to the patients,” says Dr. Patel. “The best part of my job is bonding with the parents and children and having the honor to be part of their lives over time. They are incredibly strong and it is rewarding to watch them grow up.”

MUSC Health ENT would be pleased to assist you or your loved ones. Please give us a call at 843-792-3531 to schedule an appointment with our team.