9 Birth Defects and Their Symptoms and Treatments

Cleft Lip or Palate

An Anatomical Abnormality

Prevalence: Cleft lip or palate appears in about 1 in 700 Caucasian babies, more often among Asians and certain groups of Native Americans, and less frequently among African-Americans.

Causes: The exact cause is hard to determine, but it's likely that genetic and environmental factors interact to prevent either the hard palate (the roof of the mouth), the soft palate (the tissue at the back of the mouth), or the upper lip, all of which normally are split early in fetal development, from closing.

Symptoms: The cleft can be mild (a notch on the upper lip) or severe (involving the lip, the floor of the nostril, and the dental arch). A child with a cleft palate usually needs a speech pathologist. Language development can be affected not only by the structure of the lip and palate but also by the side effects of middle-ear infections, which are common in babies and toddlers with this defect (probably because their ears don't drain properly).

Babies with a cleft palate may also need help with feeding. (Those with a cleft lip generally don't have problems in this area.) Because they have trouble sucking, they must be fed in a sitting position with a special bottle. Depending on the severity of the condition, mothers who breastfeed may have to express milk and bottlefeed baby until the cleft is repaired.

Treatment: Surgical repair for a cleft lip should be done by about 3 months of age. Surgery to repair a cleft palate, which restores the partition between the nose and the mouth, is usually done later -- between 6 and 12 months of age -- to allow for some normal growth of the child's face.

Though follow-up treatment is sometimes necessary, repair of a cleft lip or palate almost always leaves the child with only minimal scarring and a face that looks like that of most other children.

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