Every year in the United States, about 7,000 babies (or 1 out of every 600) are born with a cleft lip and/or a cleft palate. These are two of the most common birth defects found in the US.
A cleft lip occurs when the lip does not completely form, leaving an opening in the lip. The opening can range from a small notch to a large opening from the lip up through the nose. A cleft palate occurs when the roof of the mouth (palate) does not completely close, leaving an opening that can extend into the nasal cavity. Cleft lip and cleft palate may occur together or on their own.
The causes of orofacial clefts are unknown. Genetics may play a factor in some cases as well as exposure to certain risk factors that arise during a woman’s pregnancy. Prenatal factors known to increase the chance of having an orofacial cleft include:
- use of certain medications (such as anti-epileptic medications like topiramate or valproic acid).
Children with orofacial clefts often have an impaired ability to feed and an impaired language development. Babies need special bottles and nipples to feed successfully, as well as feeding in an upright position. Surgery to repair these clefts usually occurs within the first 12-18 months of life. Surgical repair is not just to improve the appearance of the child’s face but may also improve breathing, hearing, and speech and language development.
Children may also need other types of treatment such as special dental and orthodontic care or speech therapy. With proper treatment, most children with orofacial clefts continue to experience healthy lives.
While they are the most common, cleft lip and cleft palate are only two of many craniofacial birth defects. These defects may occur alone or in combination as part of a craniofacial syndrome. Some other anomalies include:
- Craniosynostosis- the skull of an infant fuses too early, causing problems with brain and skull growth
- Anotia/microtia- the external ear is missing or small and not formed properly
- Anophthalmia/microphthalmia- one or both eyes are missing or small and not fully developed
- Hemifacial microsomia- the tissues on one side of the face are underdeveloped
- Micrognathia- the jaw is undersized
- Positional plagiocephaly- the head is misshapen and asymmetrical
National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month (NAACPM) is not just limited to birth defects. It also aims to shed light on a wide range of other acquired craniofacial conditions due to causes such as burns, accidents, cancer, or other various oral, head, neck and skin diseases. More details on this month and the conditions it promotes can be found on the NCCAPM website.