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Why Are Babies Born With Cleft Palates?


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 4,440 infants are born with a cleft lip in the United States every year, and 2,650 are born with a cleft palate. Cleft palates and cleft lips are birth defects resulting from a fetus’ facial tissue not joining properly during development in the womb. Cleft lips can be diagnosed through a routine ultrasound during pregnancy, but cleft palates are more commonly diagnosed after the infant is born.

What Does Cleft Palate or Lip Mean?

During pregnancy, a fetus’ lip develops before the palate, typically between the fourth and seventh week. As they develop in the womb, a fetus’ body’s tissue and cells grow towards the center of the face before they join together. A cleft lip occurs when the two sides fail to join completely before birth, leaving an opening that varies in size from a small slit to a large gap that can stretch up to the nose.

The palate, or roof of the mouth, typically forms between the sixth and ninth weeks of pregnancy. Similarly to a cleft lip, a cleft palate occurs when the tissue fails to join completely before birth. The cleft can occur in the front or back of the palate, and in some cases it occurs in both.


With treatment, children born with cleft lips and cleft palates can go on to live a healthy, normal life. The birth defect can be repaired through surgery, which can improve the child’s breathing, speech, hearing, language development, and appearance. Repair for a cleft lip is usually done in the first few months of the infant’s life, and is recommended within the first year. Doctors recommend that cleft palate repair should take place within the first year and a half of the infant’s life, but should be done earlier if possible. Further surgeries may be required later in life, and children born with cleft lips and/or cleft palates may need additional treatments including dental care or speech therapy.

Risk Factors and Potential Causes

Experts have not found a concrete cause of cleft palates and cleft lips, but the birth defects are believed to be caused by some combination of genetics, what the mother eats and drinks during pregnancy, medications the mother takes during the pregnancy, and/or environmental factors.

The CDC continues to study birth defects, and recently reported on their findings from research studies about potential factors that increase the chances of a child being born with a cleft lip and cleft palate:

  • Diabetes: Compared to women who don’t have diabetes, women diagnosed with diabetes before pregnancy have a higher risk of their child being born with a cleft lip and cleft palate.
  • Smoking: Children are more likely to be born with a cleft lip or cleft palate if their mother smoked during the pregnancy.
  • Medication: If used during the first trimester of pregnancy, certain medicines, like valproic acid and topiramate, used to treat epilepsy can increase the risk of an infant being born with a cleft lip or cleft palate.
  • Zofran: The CDC, along with the Sloan Epidemiology Center, conducted a study in 2012 that showed taking the drug Zofran during the first trimester of pregnancy doubled the risk of a child being born with a cleft lip or cleft palate. Originally used by cancer patients looking to relieve nausea symptoms, Zofran was prescribed to pregnant women as a way to reduce their morning sickness.

If you or a loved one took Zofran during pregnancy and gave birth to a child with a cleft lip or cleft palate, contact Domina Law Group today for a case evaluation. We will thoroughly review your claim to properly quantify your expectations, and together we create a custom solution that works best for you.

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