Cleft lip and cleft palate

Last updated: September 14, 2023

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Cleft lip (CL) and cleft palate (CP) 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 facial deformity, infants with CL and CP have feeding, hearing, speech difficulties, and defects in the 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 may involve an interdisciplinary team of plastic surgeons, oral maxillofacial surgeons, otolaryngologists, pediatricians, and speech therapists. Nasoalveolar molding 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 is done at 3 months of age and of the cleft palate at 6 months of age with the aim of optimizing feeding and speech development without interrupting normal maxillofacial growth.

Epidemiologytoggle arrow icon

  • Incidence
  • Unilateral CL/CP is more common than bilateral CL/CP.
  • Majority of cases are nonsyndromic.


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

Etiologytoggle arrow icon

The development of CL/CP is dependent on the interaction of environmental factors and genetic predisposition. [5]

Pathophysiologytoggle arrow icon

Cleft lip and palate involves a disrupted fusion of the 5 embryonic facial prominences (the midline frontonasal prominence, the bilateral maxillary prominences, and the bilateral mandibular prominences) and results in congenital orofacial deformities. [6]

Partial or total failure of primary palate formation leads to cleft lip. Failed formation of the secondary palate leads to cleft palate.

Clinical featurestoggle arrow icon

Facial features [2][7]

CL/CP may be unilateral or bilateral, complete or incomplete.

Cleft lip

Cleft palate

Other features [8][9]

  • Feeding difficulties: depends on the type and severity of the cleft
    • Bifid uvula: may cause nasal regurgitation
    • Cleft lip
      • Sucking difficulties may occur.
      • Minimal feeding difficulties
    • Cleft Palate
      • Sucking difficulties
      • Nasal regurgitation of milk
      • Choking/coughing during feeds
      • Excessive aerophagia
  • Speech difficulties: hypernasal, unintelligible speech due to velopharyngeal insufficiency (a structural disorder that causes the inability to form a seal between the nasopharynx and oropharynx and that is characterized by hypernasal speech, which may impair intelligibility)
  • Dentition defects (in CP): due to clefts creating gaps in the maxilla
  • Hearing loss: due to recurrent/persistent otitis media with effusion (OME)

Diagnosticstoggle arrow icon


Treatmenttoggle arrow icon

Approach [11][12]

Conservative measures before surgery [13]

  • Proper feeding techniques: feeding in upright position to prevent nasal regurgitation; use of specialized feeding bottles ; frequent burping
  • Nasoalveolar molding: Use of a custom made orthodontic prosthesis to bridge and reduce the palatal gap and passively mold the maxillary, palatal, and nasal structures into a normal shape
  • Nasal stent: to lift the drooping nostril and shape the nose
  • Lip taping: use of adhesive tape to reduce the defect; makes definitive surgery easier
  • Lip adhesion: suturing the edges of the cleft lip, in conjunction with NAM can be done in infants with complete CL/CP who are not responding well to lip taping

Surgical repair [14]

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. Facts about Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate. Updated: November 12, 2015. Accessed: April 9, 2017.
  2. Melnick M. Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate. Elsevier ; 2013: p. 29-32
  3. Prevalence (Number of Cases) of Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate. Updated: April 8, 2017. Accessed: April 8, 2017.
  4. Kosowski TR, Weathers WM, Wolfswinkel EM, Ridgway EB. Cleft palate. Semin Plast Surg. 2012; 26 (4): p.164-169.doi: 10.1055/s-0033-1333883 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  5. Murthy J, Bhaskar L. Current concepts in genetics of nonsyndromic clefts. Indian J Plast Surg. 2009; 42 (1): p.68-81.doi: 10.4103/0970-0358.53004 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  6. Burg ML, Chai Y, Yao CA, Magee W, Figueiredo JC. Epidemiology, etiology, and treatment of isolated cleft palate. Front Physiol. 2016; 7: p.67.doi: 10.3389/fphys.2016.00067 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  7. Sivertsen A, Wilcox AJ, Skjaerven R, et al. Familial risk of oral clefts by morphological type and severity: population based cohort study of first degree relatives. BMJ. 2008; 336 (7641): p.432-434.doi: 10.1136/bmj.39458.563611.AE . | Open in Read by QxMD
  8. Shkoukani MA, Chen M, Vong A. Cleft lip – A comprehensive review. Front Pediatr. 2013; 1: p.53.doi: 10.3389/fped.2013.00053 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  9. Walls R, Hockberger R, Gausche-Hill M. Rosen's Emergency Medicine - Concepts and Clinical Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences ; 2013
  10. Sharma R, Nanda V. Problems of middle ear and hearing in cleft children. Indian J Plast Surg. 2009; 42 (3): p.144.doi: 10.4103/0970-0358.57198 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  11. Nahai FR, Williams JK, Burstein FD, Martin J, Thomas J. The management of cleft lip and palate: pathways for treatment and longitudinal assessment. Semin Plast Surg. 2005; 19 (4): p.275–285.doi: 10.1055/s-2005-925900 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  12. $Cleft Lip and Palate.
  13. Grayson BH, Maull D. Nasoalveolar molding for infants born with clefts of the lip, alveolus, and palate. Semin Plast Surg. 2005; 19 (4): p.294–301.doi: 10.1055/s-2005-925902 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  14. Salyer KE, Rozen ShM, Genecov ER, Genecov DG. Unilateral cleft lip: Approach and technique. Semin Plast Surg. 2005; 19 (4): p.313–328.doi: 10.1055/s-2005-925904 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  15. Leow AM, Lo LJ. Palatoplasty: evolution and controversies. Chang Gung Med J. 2008; 31 (4): p.335-345.
  16. Swearingen B. Transsphenoidal surgery for pituitary adenomas and other sellar masses. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. Last updated: June 29, 2015. Accessed: December 19, 2016.
  17. Core Curriculum for Cleft Palate and Other Craniofacial Anomalies: Plastic Surgery. Updated: April 9, 2017. Accessed: April 1, 2017.
  18. Tips For Feeding an Infant with Cleft Lip. Updated: April 9, 2017. Accessed: April 9, 2017.
  19. Bottles for Cleft Affected Children. Updated: April 9, 2017. Accessed: April 9, 2017.
  20. Chapman KL, Hardin-Jones, MA Goldstein JA, Halter KA, Havlik RJ, Schulte J. Timing of palatal surgery and speech outcome. Cleft Palate Craniofac J. 2008; 45 (3): p.297-308.doi: 10.1597/06-244.1 . | Open in Read by QxMD

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