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Home > Dental Conditions > Cleft Palate > The Complex Causes of Cleft Palate
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The Complex Causes of Cleft Palate


Take a deep breath. If you're reading this, there's a good chance you're upset because either you or someone you know is the parent of a newborn with a cleft palate or a cleft lip. It's not unusual to feel shock, confusion and even guilt at a time which for most new parents and their families is one of joyous celebration. This is a natural reaction. It will pass. The important thing to keep in mind is that, despite this challenge, the odds are excellent that the condition is correctable and everything is going to turn out all right for the baby and parents alike.

Causes of Cleft Palate

Causes of cleft palate: Learn causes of cleft lip palate in kids.

According to folklore, if a pregnant woman sees a hare, her child may be born with a harelip. This is nonsense, of course. While scientists still don't know the exact causes of cleft lip palate, they are getting closer to answers. Studies show that a combination of environmental and genetic (inherited) factors likely contribute to clefting. Current research indicates that primary causes of cleft lip and palate may include:

Genetics -- The risk of a cleft palate or cleft lip appears to be higher for babies whose siblings or parents have a cleft. A family history of clefting is viewed as one of the primary causes of cleft palate. Either parent can pass on the genetic material which leads to the development of a cleft. In some instances, babies will inherit a gene that makes them susceptible to clefting and then subsequent exposure to an environment factor will trigger the development of a cleft palate and/or cleft lip

Environment -- Exposure during early pregnancy to cigarette smoke, alcohol, some medications, illicit drugs, certain viruses and radiation from medical X-rays have been linked to clefting.

Nutrition -- Some researchers believe nutritional deficiencies in the mother, particularly a lack of folic acid, contribute to the development of cleft palates and cleft lips.

Race -- Clefting is most commonly seen in children of Asian, Latino and Native American descent. As a group, African-American children have the lowest incidence of cleft palate and lip.

Sex -- Boys are twice as likely to be born with a cleft lip, while girls are twice as likely to have a cleft palate.

Socio-economic Factors - Socio-economic factors are a promising area of study related to the causes of cleft palate. According to an article published by the American Dental Association, there appears to be a higher incidence of clefting related to teenage pregnancies and pregnancies in women older than 35.

Can Cleft Palate Be Prevented?

The short answer is "no." Though scientists are diligently investigating the cause of cleft palate, it is unlikely they will ever be able to completely prevent the condition from occurring. Still, it is clear that steps can be taken to lessen the likelihood of a child being born with cleft palate and lip. The key? Maintaining good prenatal health. Expectant mothers should avoid alcohol, illegal drugs and smoking. Doctors and other medical professionals should be advised of the pregnancy before prescribing medication or X-rays. Special efforts should be made to eat well and avoid infection.

Complications Associated With Cleft Palates and Cleft Lips

Whether it's a cleft palate, a cleft lip or a combination of the two conditions, children born with clefting typically face a variety of health challenges. Complications often seen in infants include difficulty with feeding, an increased incidence of ear infections and hearing loss. In older children, challenges focus on issues related to speech and language, tooth development and self-esteem.

The good news is that the quality of expert help for babies born with clefts has never been better or more readily available. In many cases, a specialized care team will form immediately upon the child's birth.  This team -- which will grow to include doctors, therapists, dentists, oral surgeons, social workers and mental health professionals -- will begin formulating a custom care plan to address the child's short- and long-term health needs.

Encouraging News About Cleft Palates and Cleft Lips

Cleft palates and lips were once referred to as harelips. This term is neither correct nor socially acceptable. By definition, a cleft palate is an opening between the roof of the mouth and the nasal cavity. Clefting can extend through both the child's soft and hard palates. A cleft lip appears as a narrow gap in the upper lip that extends as far as the base of the nose. It is not unusual for a baby to be born with both conditions. Clefting occurs early in a pregnancy when the tissues of the palate and/or lips fail to grow together properly.

Cleft palates and cleft lips are very common birth defects. According to Colgate World of Care, cleft palate occurs in approximately one out of every 700 live births making it the fourth most frequent congenital defect seen in U.S. delivery rooms. You might ask yourself, if clefting is so common why is it so uncommon to see people on the street affected by this condition? The reason is that cleft palates and lips respond well to treatment. In the U.S., most children with cleft palates and cleft lips undergo reconstructive surgery within their first year of life. Outcomes can be very positive with many patients going on to live happy lives completely unhindered by lasting aftereffects of clefting.

Learn More About the Causes of Cleft Lip Palate

Learning about the causes of cleft palate is an important start. Good dental health is key to correcting the condition.

To get help finding a dentist or oral surgeon near you who specializes in the treatment of cleft palate call 1-866-970-0441.

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