Cleft palate is a term used to describe a separation in the roof of the mouth. It occurs when the tissue that makes up the roof of the mouth, called the palate, does not join together completely before birth. The palate is formed between the sixth and ninth weeks of pregnancy.
The separation can extend from the front of the mouth (hard palate) to the throat (soft palate) and may include the lip. A separation in the lip is called a cleft lip. A cleft palate that occurs without a cleft lip does not affect the appearance of the face, but it can affect important functions such as eating and speaking.
How common is cleft palate?
An estimated 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate each year in the U.S.
Who gets cleft palate?
Cleft lip and cleft palate can occur in both boys and girls. Boys are more likely to have a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate, but a cleft palate without a cleft lip is more common in girls. In the U.S., these birth defects are most common among Native Americans and least common among African-Americans.
Cleft palate may be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. A woman who has diabetes, is obese during pregnancy, or has a family history of cleft palates may be more likely to have a child with a cleft palate. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or taking certain medications while pregnant may also increase the risk.
How is cleft palate diagnosed?
Most instances of cleft palate are noticeable immediately after birth. A cleft palate may be diagnosed during pregnancy through a routine ultrasound, but a cleft palate that occurs without a cleft lip is more difficult to see using ultrasound.
A cleft palate that occurs without a cleft lip does not affect the appearance of the face. A submucous cleft palate, which is a separation only in the soft palate, may go unnoticed at birth.
Signs and symptoms of a submucous cleft palate may include:
- Difficulty with feedings
- Difficulty swallowing, with fluids or foods possibly coming out of the nose
- Nasal sounding speech
- Chronic ear infections
Contact a medical professional if your child is having these symptoms.
A cleft palate can be corrected through surgery, which is usually performed in the first 18 months of a baby’s life. While the child is under general anesthesia, the surgeon makes incisions on both sides of the cleft and draws the tissue and muscles together.
Information and Resources about Cleft Palate
- Date of last review: February 17, 2017