Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects that happen during pregnancy.  Your baby’s lips form between 4 and 7 weeks, and the palate (roof of the mouth) forms between 6 and 9 weeks of pregnancy. 

Cleft lip is when a baby’s upper lip doesn’t form completely and has an opening in it. Cleft palate is when the roof of the mouth doesn’t form completely and has an opening in it.  A baby can have one without the other. 

In the United States: 

  • About 1 in every 1,600 babies is born with cleft lip and cleft palate
  • About 1 in every 2,800 babies is born with cleft lip without cleft palate
  • About 1 in every 1,700 babies is born with cleft palate

Cleft lip and cleft palate can be diagnosed after birth or by ultrasound during pregnancy. 

What can cause cleft lip and cleft palate?

We don’t know for sure.  They may be caused by a combination of genes and things in your environment.  Risk factors of having a baby with cleft lip or palate include:

Some groups are affected more by these types of birth defects. For example, research shows that American Indian/Alaska Native people have a much higher rate of having a baby affected by cleft lip with or without cleft palate. There are many reasons for these disparities. Access to and use of health care services before and during pregnancy is one reason, but more research needs to be done to fully understand all the reasons.

What can you do to help prevent cleft lip and cleft palate in your baby?

Here are things you can do: 

  • Before pregnancy, take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. Folic acid is a vitamin that your body needs for healthy growth and development. It can help protect your baby from these birth defects, as well as those that affect the brain and spine (called neural tube defects).
  • Don’t smoke or drink alcohol. 
  • Get a preconception checkup before you get pregnant.
  • Get to a healthy weight before pregnancy. Talk to your provider about gaining a healthy amount of weight during pregnancy.
  • Talk to your provider to make sure any medicine you take is safe during pregnancy. Don’t stop taking any medicine without talking to your provider.  
  • Get early and regular prenatal care during pregnancy. 
  • Protect yourself from infections. Talk to your provider about your vaccinations. Wash your hands often.  

What problems can cleft lip and cleft palate cause for your baby? 

Cleft lip or palate may cause:

What can you do if your baby has cleft lip or cleft palate?

In most cases, surgery can repair cleft lip before a baby is 1 year old, and cleft palate before 18 months old. Babies with cleft lip or palate may also need care from providers like dentists, doctors, speech therapists and surgeons who specialize in problems caused by cleft lip and palate.

If your baby has either, or both of these conditions, it may be more difficult to breastfeed.  Babies with a cleft lip may need some extra time to get started with breastfeeding.  Babies with a cleft palate have more trouble sucking and swallowing so they most likely can’t feed from the breast.  You can, however, still feed your baby pumped breast milk from a bottle.

Your baby’s provider can also help start good breastfeeding habits after your baby is born.  There are special bottles that make feeding a baby with cleft palate breast milk from a bottle easier.  Your provider may also recommend a lactation counselor and other breastfeeding tips for babies with cleft lip and cleft palate.

With treatment, most children with clefts do well and lead a healthy life.  Providers can help babies born with birth defects like cleft lip and cleft palate get the care they need as they grow up and over the course of their life. To learn more, visit the CDC’s site on birth defects across the lifespan