What is a cleft lip or cleft palate and how often do cleft conditions happen?

A cleft is a gap in the mouth that didn't close during the early stages of pregnancy, and this kind of birth defect happens more often than you may realise. It is estimated that, worldwide, a child is born every 3 minutes with a cleft — about one in 500-750 births. Sometimes a cleft condition can be easy to see because it’s an opening in the lip. Sometimes it’s harder to tell if someone has a cleft because it’s an opening in the roof of their mouth (called the palate).

Why do cleft conditions happen and can this birth defect be prevented?

There are many risk factors that can increase the likelihood of birth defects. While some causes are still unknown, genetics and family history, pre-existing medical conditions, poor nutrition and exposure to harmful environmental substances can affect the healthy development of a baby. As a result, these factors could also be the cause of a baby born with a cleft lip or cleft palate.

Researchers continue to investigate all the genes involved in the formation of a cleft condition and the interaction of these genes with the environment, hoping to prevent the occurrence clefts someday. For example, the protective effect of taking folic acid supplements during pregnancy in other conditions such as spina bifida has been documented, but attempts to prove the same protective effect for cleft conditions has remained inconsistent until recently.

Does a cleft condition cause problems for a child?

Depending on the type and severity, a cleft can create serious health issues if not corrected. Babies can have difficulty with feeding, which in some parts of the world can lead to malnutrition, or even starvation. Ear infections can occur — and recurring ear infections can lead to hearing loss. Dental development can be affected. Speech and language development can also be impaired. Children may also suffer from bullying and social isolation.

Can cleft lip and cleft palate be repaired?

With surgery, a child suffering from a cleft lip or cleft palate can have a brand-new, beautiful smile. In an ideal situation, a paediatrician and a plastic surgeon work with a child’s parents soon after the child’s birth to choose the best timing for surgery. Most surgeons agree that a cleft lip should be repaired by the time a baby is 3 months old, and that a cleft palate should be repaired between the ages of 12 and 18 months.

For many families in developing countries, early surgery may not be an option, due to lack of financial resources, qualified medical staff and other factors. Since 1982, Operation Smile has been dedicated to finding these families around the world and providing them with surgery so they can live happy healthy lives.

Do you do any work in Ireland to assist people born with clefts?

The Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) provides free surgery to children born with cleft lip and/or cleft palate in Ireland. 

Where can I get additional information?

If you would like additional information regarding cleft lip and cleft palate, statistics and treatment, please contact us on 01 6676659 or email info@operationsmile.ie

“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder and President