Cleft lip is a common facial birth defect that is characterized by a split or opening in the upper lip. Cleft lip occurs when the fetus is developing in the uterus and the tissue in the mouth does not fuse together properly. It may occur on its own or in conjunction with a cleft palate.
In most cases, a cleft lip only occurs in the upper lip and does not affect the lower lip. A cleft lip can be defined by different characteristics and may be unilateral or bilateral.
Unilateral Cleft Lip
The gap or opening is on one side of the upper lip, either under the left or right nostril. It may extend up into the nose.
Bilateral Cleft Lip
The openings occur on both sides of the upper lip. There may be a deep split that extends into both nostrils causing the nose to appear wider and shorter than normal.
Causes of Cleft Lip
Not all causes of cleft lip are known, however doctors believe some causes may be genetic. Other causes may be a result of the following during pregnancy:
- Use of certain medications
- Malnutrition or vitamin deficiency
- Exposure to certain chemicals
- Smoking and alcohol use
Cleft lip can cause problems with feeding, nursing and speech. Left untreated, children with cleft lip may experience dental problems and frequent ear infections.
Diagnosis of Cleft Lip
Cleft lip is commonly diagnosed before the baby is born through the use of an ultrasound. The doctor may notice an abnormality in the facial structures of the child when viewing and analyzing ultrasound images.
Treatment for Cleft Lip
Surgery to repair cleft lip in infants can correct nursing, feeding and speech problems, and reduce future problems with ear infections.
The cleft lip procedure is usually performed between 6 and 12 weeks of age. While the infant sleeps under general anesthesia, the tissue and muscles are repositioned and the cleft is closed with absorbable stitches. The skin is then sewn over the correction with fine sutures to minimize scarring. Any resultant scar will also fade over time.
After surgery, children may have bandages near their mouth. The physician will instruct parents about medication to control pain as well as instructions on feeding and caring for the procedure site.
The procedure creates a more normal appearance of the lip and surrounding area and the ability to eat and speak are greatly increased. After cleft lip correction surgery, children go on to live relatively normal lives.