A cleft palate or cleft lip is the most common birth defect in the United States.  One out of 600 children are born with this deformity, about 7,000 infants annually, just in the U.S. While many defects are discovered during the prenatal period, a cleft lip or palate may not be discovered until after birth. This can be naturally quite disconcerting for the parents. This article will help to alleviate your fears and tell you what you can expect.

What Is a Cleft?

A cleft is another word for an opening. If your baby has a cleft lip, it is an opening in the lip, and likewise for a cleft palate. Sometimes a child will have both. This opening tends to be in the middle because, when the fetus is forming, growth comes from the sides and fuses the face together down the middle.

Why Does a Cleft Lip or Palate Happen?

Scientists aren't entirely certain of the exact cause. It may be genetic, or it may just be one of those things. Sometimes a cleft palate or lip is associated with other congenital deformities, but the chance of your baby having one of these associated defects is very small.

How Is a Cleft Palate or Cleft Lip Fixed?

When your infant is typically about 3-6 months old, a cleft lip will be fixed. The surgery is performed by a pediatric plastic surgeon who is skilled in this type of surgery. A specialist in children's plastic surgery is your best bet to fix not only the underlying structure but to provide the best cosmetic results as well. For a cleft palate, doctors usually wait until the child is about 9-12 months old as this surgery is a bit more involved.

When surgery occurs and in what order doesn't necessarily follow set rules, however. Each case is different, and if your infant's cleft lip or palate indicates it may cause breathing or feeding difficulties, the plastic surgery may be scheduled sooner rather than later. Special bottles and feeding techniques may also be used to buy some time before having to have surgery.

Are There Any Other Complications?

Depending on the type and size of the cleft, your child may later have dental issues when the teeth start coming in. For this reason, infants should be seen by a dentist as soon as the first tooth comes in. There may also be speech problems down the road that would require a speech pathologist, but for most children, there aren't any ongoing problems. 

To learn more about cleft lip and palate in infants, talk to a doctor at hospitals like Shriners Hospitals for Children – Cincinnati.