Cleft lip and palate

Cleft lip and palate

What is a cleft?

A cleft is a correctable birth defect that causes incomplete development of the structure of the mouth. A cleft lip is a separation in the upper lip, whereas a cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth.

Both types of cleft can occur on one side of the mouth (unilateral clefts) or on both sides (bilateral clefts). Children can be born with either a cleft lip, or a cleft palate, or both. One in 700 people will be born with some form of cleft.

How do clefts develop?

Clefts occur between the fourth and sixth weeks of pregnancy, as the facial structure of the foetus develops. If the bones do not connect correctly a cleft can develop.

Clefts seem to occur at the same incidence in all races. Half of all children born with clefts have a combined cleft of lip and palate. Around 30% have only a cleft palate and the remainder a cleft lip.

How is a cleft lip or palate treated?

Clefts can be corrected by reconstructive surgery. The surgical process begins during infancy, with operations to repair the lip and palate in the first year of life. If cosmetic surgery on the nose is required, it will take place before the child is of school-going age.

If orthodontic surgery is needed, it may take place at the age of nine or ten. The Maxilla or upper jaw may need surgical modification at this stage and there may also be a need for bone grafting. Any remaining surgery will be performed at the age of 18.

Treating a cleft involves a multidisciplinary team of medical practitioners, including a plastic surgeon, an ENT surgeon, a maxillofacial surgeon, an orthodontist, a dietician and a speech and language therapist.

Where can I get support or find out more?

Parents of children who have been born with a cleft should be given some information at the maternity hospital. The Cleft Lip and Palate Association of Ireland (CLAPAI) is a support and information service on clefts, run by parents for parents. The Association is now 20 years old and provides funding for cleft research and for hospital equipment.

CLAPAI can be contacted at (01) 8225908, or via their website at

Back to top.