• Clinical science

Cleft lip and cleft palate


Cleft lip and cleft palate (CLP) are the most common congenital orofacial deformities. A combination of genetic predisposition and in-utero exposure to teratogens (nicotine, alcohol, antiepileptic drugs) can arrest the fusion of the facial processes required for normal facial development. Failure of fusion of the maxillary prominence with the medial nasal prominence causes cleft lip (CL). Failure of fusion of the palatine prominences causes cleft palate (CP). Cleft lip and/or palate may be unilateral or bilateral and complete or incomplete. In addition to the facial deformity, infants with CLP have feeding, hearing, speech difficulties, and defects in dentition. Infants with cleft lips and/or palate require special feeding techniques (feeding in upright position, special feeding bottles) since they cannot effectively create negative sucking pressure. Treatment should be initiated as early as possible and involves an interdisciplinary team of oral maxillofacial surgeons or otolaryngologists, pediatricians, and speech therapists. Nasoalveolar molds and lip taping are non-surgical techniques used to decrease the size of the lip/palatal defects and should be initiated early (at 2 weeks of age). Repair of the cleft lip repair is done at 3 months of age and of cleft palate at 6 months of age with the aim of optimizing feeding and speech development without interrupting normal maxillofacial growth.


  • Incidence
  • Unilateral CLP is more common than bilateral CLP
  • Majority of cases are non-syndromic.


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.


  • Face development: The face is formed by the fusion of 5 embryonic facial prominences: the midline frontonasal prominence, the bilateral maxillary prominences, and the bilateral mandibular prominences.
  • Development of the upper lip
    • The maxillary prominences grow medially and fuse first with the lateral nasal prominence, giving rise to the lateral parts of the upper lip.
    • The maxillary prominences continue to grow medially and fuse with the medial nasal prominence on either side, bringing the nostrils closer together at around 5 weeks' gestation.
  • Development of the palate: The palate develops in 2 parts, the anterior primary palate and the posterior secondary palate.
    • The two maxillary processes give rise to the lateral palatine processes (posteriorly) → fusion of the lateral palatine processes around 8–12 weeks' gestation → the secondary palate
    • Partial or total failure of this process leads to cleft palate



The development of CLP is dependent on the interaction of environmental factors and genetic predisposition


Clinical features

  • Facial deformities (see subtypes and variants below)
  • Feeding difficulties: depends on the type and severity of the cleft
    • CL: minimal feeding difficulties; may have suckling difficulties
    • CP: difficulty in suckling; nasal regurgitation of milk; choking/coughing during feeds; excessive aerophagia
  • Speech difficulties (hypernasality, unintelligible speech): Due to velopharyngeal insufficiency
  • Dentition defects (in CP): due to gaps in the upper jaw at the sites of the clefts
  • Hearing loss: due to recurrent/persistent otitis media with effusion (OME)


Subtypes and variants

Types of cleft lip

  • Microform cleft lip: notch on vermillion border of the upper lip; fibrous tissue band from the notch to the nostril; drooping of the ipsilateral nasal ala
  • Incomplete cleft lip: cleft on the upper lip which does not extend into the nostril (unilateral/bilateral)
  • Complete cleft lip: cleft on the upper lip which extends into the nose (unilateral/bilateral); more often associated with cleft palate

Types of cleft palate

  • Submucosal cleft palate (occult cleft palate): the palatine mucosa is intact; an underlying muscular and/or bony palatal defect is present
  • Incomplete cleft palate: clefting only of the secondary palate
  • Complete cleft palate: clefting of the entire hard palate, soft palate, and the uvula; often associated with cleft lip






  • Interdisciplinary management is required (oral maxillofacial surgeons or otolaryngologists, pediatricians, and speech therapists)
  • All cleft lips and palates should be surgically repaired.

Conservative measures before surgery

  • Proper feeding techniques: feeding in upright position to prevent nasal regurgitation; use of specialized feeding bottles ; frequent burping

Surgical repair

  • Cleft lip repair (chelioplasty)
  • Cleft palate repair (palatoplasty)
    • Goals include closure of the defect, optimal speech development, and normal maxillofacial growth
    • Timing: 6–9 months: palatoplasty
  • Further surgeries are often required as the child grows older.
  • Speech assessment and therapy