Cleft Palate: Understanding the Condition and Treatment Options

Published by Health Professional

on Monday, April 3rd 2023


  • Children Health
  • A cleft is a gap or split in the upper lip and/or roof of the mouth (palate). It is present from birth.

    The gap exists because parts of the baby’s face do not join properly during womb development.

    A cleft lip and palate is the most common facial birth defect, which affects around 1 in every 700 babies.

    What does a cleft lip and palate look like?

    Babies can be born with a cleft lip, palate, or both.

    A cleft lip may just affect one side of the lip, or there may be 2 clefts. It can range from a small notch to a wide gap that reaches the nose.

    A cleft palate is an opening at the back of the mouth or a split in the palate that runs all the way to the front of the mouth.

    Sometimes it can be hidden by the lining of the roof of the mouth.

    The Cleft Lip and Palate Association has a photo gallery with pictures of cleft lips and palates before and after surgery.

    Problems related to cleft lip and palate

    A cleft lip and cleft palate can cause a number of issues, particularly in the first few months after birth, before surgery is done.

    Problems can include:

    • Difficulty feeding – a baby with a cleft lip and palate may be unable to breastfeed or feed from a normal bottle because they cannot form a good seal with their mouth
    • hearing problems – some babies with a cleft palate are more vulnerable to ear infections and a build-up of fluid in their ears (glue ear), which may affect their hearing
    • dental problems – a cleft lip and palate can mean a child’s teeth do not develop correctly, and they may be at a higher risk of tooth decay
    • speech problems – if a cleft palate is not repaired, it can lead to speech problems such as unclear or nasal-sounding speech when a child is older

    Most problems will improve after surgery and with speech and language therapy treatments.

    Causes of cleft lip and palate

    A cleft lip or palate happens when the structures that form the upper lip or palate fail to join together when a baby is developing in the womb.

    The exact reason why this happens to some babies is often unclear. It’s unlikely to have been caused by anything you did or did not do during pregnancy.

    In a few cases, cleft lip and palate are associated with the following:

    • the genes a child inherits from their parents (although most cases are a one-off)
    • smoking during pregnancy or drinking alcohol during pregnancy
    • obesity during pregnancy
    • a lack of folic acid during pregnancy
    • taking certain medicines in early pregnancy, such as some anti-seizure medications and steroid tablets

    In some cases, a cleft lip or palate can occur as part of a condition that causes a wider range of birth defects, such as 22q11 deletion syndrome (sometimes called DiGeorge or velocardiofacial syndrome) and Pierre Robin sequence.

    Diagnosing cleft lip and palate

    A cleft lip is usually picked up during the mid-pregnancy anomaly scan when you’re between 18 and 21 weeks pregnant. Not all cleft lips will be obvious on this scan, and it’s very difficult to detect a cleft palate on an ultrasound scan.

    If a cleft lip or palate does not show up on the scan, it’s usually diagnosed immediately after birth or during the newborn physical examination done within 72 hours of birth.

    When a cleft lip or palate is diagnosed, you’ll be referred to a specialist Clinic cleft team who will explain your child’s condition, discuss the treatments they need and answer any questions you have.

    You may also find it useful to contact a support group, such as the Cleft Lip and Palate Association, which can offer advice and contact parents in a similar situation.

    Treatments for cleft lip and palate

    Cleft lip and cleft palate are treated at specialist Clinic cleft centers.

    Your child usually has a long-term care plan that outlines the treatments and assessments they’ll need as they grow up.

    The main treatments are:

    • Surgery – an operation to correct a cleft lip is usually done when your baby is 3 to 6 months, and an operation to repair a cleft palate is usually done at 6 to 12 months
    • feeding support – you may need advice about positioning your baby on your breast to help them feed, or you might need to feed them using a special type of bottle
    • monitoring hearing – a baby born with a cleft palate has a higher chance of glue ear, which may affect hearing. Close monitoring of their hearing is important, and if glue ear affects their hearing significantly, a hearing aid may be fitted, or small tubes called grommets may be placed in their ears to drain the fluid
    • speech and language therapy – a speech and language therapist will monitor your child’s speech and language development throughout their childhood and help with any speech and language problems
    • good dental hygiene and orthodontic treatment – you’ll be advised about looking after your child’s teeth, and they may need braces if their adult teeth don’t come through properly

    Outlook for cleft lip and palate

    Most children treated for cleft lip or palate grow up to have completely normal lives.

    Most affected children will not have any other serious medical problems, and treatment can usually improve the appearance of the face and problems with feeding and speech.

    Surgery to repair a cleft lip may leave a small pink scar above the lips. This will fade over time and become less noticeable as your child ages.

    Some adults with cleft lip or palate repair may be self-conscious or unhappy about their appearance. Your Doctor may refer you to a cleft center for further treatment and support if there are any ongoing issues.

    Will a cleft lip and palate happen again?

    Most cleft lip or palate cases are one-off, and you’ll unlikely have another child with the condition.

    The risk of having a cleft lip or palate is slightly increased if you’ve had a child with the condition before, but the chances of this happening are thought to be around 2 to 8%.

    If you or your partner were born with a cleft lip or palate, your chance of having a baby with a cleft is also around 2 to 8%.

    The chances of another child being born with a cleft or of a parent passing the condition to their child can be higher in cases related to a genetic condition.

    Children with a cleft lip or palate will need several treatments and assessments as they grow up.

    A cleft is usually treated with surgery. Other treatments, such as speech therapy and dental care, may also be needed.

    Your child will be cared for by a specialist cleft team at a Clinic cleft center.

    Your child’s care plan

    Children with clefts will have a care plan tailored to their needs. A typical care plan timetable for cleft lip and palate is as follows:

    • birth to 6 weeks – feeding assistance, support for parents, hearing tests, and pediatric assessment
    • 3 to 6 months – surgery to repair a cleft lip
    • 6 to 12 months – surgery to repair a cleft palate
    • 18 months – speech assessment
    • 3 years – speech assessment
    • 5 years – speech assessment
    • 8 to 12 years – bone graft to repair a cleft in the gum area
    • 12 to 15 years – orthodontic treatment and monitoring jaw growth

    Your child will also need to attend regular outpatient appointments at a cleft center so their condition can be monitored closely and any problems can be dealt with.

    These will usually be recommended until around 21, when they stop growing.


    Lip repair surgery

    Lip repair surgery is usually done when your baby is around 3 months old.

    Your baby will be given a general anesthetic (where they’re unconscious), and the cleft lip will be repaired and closed with stitches.

    The operation usually takes 1 to 2 hours.

    Most babies are in the hospital for 1 to 2 days. Arrangements may be made for you to stay with them during this time.

    The stitches will be removed after a few days or may dissolve independently.

    Your child will have a slight scar, but the surgeon will try to line up the scar with the natural lines of the lip to make it less noticeable. It should fade and become less obvious over time.

    Palate repair surgery

    Palate repair surgery is usually done when your baby is 6 to 12 months old.

    The gap in the roof of the mouth is closed, and the muscles and the lining of the palate are rearranged. The wound is closed with dissolvable stitches.

    The operation usually takes about 2 hours and uses a general anesthetic. Most children are in the hospital for 1 to 3 days, and arrangements may be made for you to stay with them.

    The scar from palate repair will be inside the mouth.

    Additional surgery

    In some cases, additional surgery may be needed at a later stage to:

    • Repair a cleft in the gum using a piece of bone (a bone graft) – usually done at around 8 to 12 years of age
    • Improve the appearance and function of the lips and palate – this may be necessary if the original surgery did not heal well or there are ongoing speech problems
    • Improve the shape of the nose (rhinoplasty)
    • Improve the appearance of the jaw – some children born with a cleft lip or palate may have a small or “set-back” lower jaw

    Feeding help and advice

    Many babies with a cleft palate have problems breastfeeding because of the gap in the roof of their mouth.

    They may struggle to form a seal with their mouth – so they may take in a lot of air and milk from their nose. They may also struggle to put on weight during their first few months.

    If necessary, a specialist cleft nurse can advise on positioning, alternative feeding methods, and weaning.

    If breastfeeding is impossible, they may suggest expressing your breast milk into a flexible bottle designed for babies with a cleft palate.

    Very occasionally, it may be necessary for your baby to be fed through a tube placed into their nose until surgery is carried out.

    Treating hearing problems

    Children with a cleft palate are more likely to develop a condition called glue ear, where fluid builds up in the ear.

    This is because the muscles in the palate are connected to the middle ear. If the muscles are not working properly because of the cleft, sticky secretions may build up within the middle ear and reduce hearing.

    Your child will have regular hearing tests to check for any issues.

    Hearing problems may improve after cleft palate repair and, if necessary, can be treated by inserting tiny plastic tubes called grommets into the eardrums. These allow the fluid to drain from the ear.

    Sometimes, hearing aids may be recommended.

    Dental care

    If a cleft involves the gum area, it’s common for teeth on either side of the cleft to be tilted or out of position. Often a tooth may be missing, or there may be an extra tooth.

    A pediatric dentist will monitor the health of your child’s teeth and recommend treatment when necessary. It’s also important that you register your child with a family dentist.

    Orthodontic treatment, which helps improve the alignment and appearance of teeth, may also be required. This can include braces or other dental appliances to help straighten the teeth.

    Brace treatment usually starts after all the baby teeth have been lost, but it may be necessary before a bone graft to repair the cleft in the gum.

    Children with a cleft are more vulnerable to tooth decay, so it’s important to encourage them to practice good oral hygiene and to visit their dentist regularly.

    Speech and language therapy

    Repairing a cleft palate will significantly reduce the chance of speech problems, but in some cases, children with a repaired cleft palate still need speech therapy.

    A speech and language therapist (SLT) will assess your child’s speech several times as they age.

    If there are any problems, they may recommend further assessment of how the palate works and/or work with you to help your child develop clear speech. They may refer you to community SLT services near your home.

    The SLT will continue to monitor your child’s speech until they are fully grown, and they will work with your child for as long as they need assistance.


    Can cleft lip and palate be prevented?

    1. Cleft lip and palate cannot always be prevented, but taking folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy may help to reduce the risk.

    Is cleft lip and palate hereditary?

    1. In some cases, cleft lip and palate can be hereditary, but most cases are a one-off.

    Can a child with cleft lip and palate breastfeed?

    1. Breastfeeding may be difficult for a child with cleft lip and palate, but some specialized bottles and techniques can help.

    Will my child need surgery for cleft lip and palate?

    1. Surgery is the main treatment for cleft lip and palate, but the extent of the surgery will depend on the severity of the cleft.

    Can a child with a cleft lip and palate lead a normal life?

    1. With early diagnosis and treatment, most children with cleft lip and palate can go on to lead normal, healthy lives.


    A cleft lip and palate is a relatively common birth defect that can cause various issues, particularly in the first few months after birth. However, with early diagnosis and treatment, most children with cleft lip and palate can go on to lead normal, healthy lives.

    If you have a child with cleft lip and palate, it’s important to seek advice and treatment from specialist cleft teams and to have regular check-ups and treatment as needed.