Cleft palate is a birth defect that occurs very early in pregnancy while the baby is still developing inside the mother. The cleft is a result of a lack of tissue in the mouth, which causes the tissue that is available to not join together properly, resulting in a space or gap in the roof of the mouth. Cleft palate can involve the hard palate, which is the front portion of the roof of the mouth, as well as the soft palate, which is the back portion of the roof of the mouth.
This condition is one of the most common birth defects in the United States, affecting nearly 3,000 babies who are born in the U.S. each year. Clefts tend to occur more commonly in children who are of Asian, Latino, or Native American descent. Girls are twice as likely to have cleft palate than boys.
The exact cause of cleft palate is unknown, but scientists believe it is due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There seems to be a greater chance of a newborn having cleft palate if a sibling, parent, or other relative has also experienced the condition.
The other suspected cause of cleft palate deal with what the mother comes into contact with during the pregnancy, such as what she eats and drinks, or certain medications she used during pregnancy. Some of the factors that have been linked to the cleft palate birth defect include:
- Smoking – Women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to have a baby with cleft palate than women who don’t smoke.
- Diabetes – Women who have diabetes before their pregnancy are at an increased risk of having a baby with a cleft than women who do not have diabetes.
- Medications – The use of certain medications has reportedly been linked to cleft palate if they are used during the first trimester of pregnancy. Medications that may cause cleft palate include anti-seizure/anticonvulsants, acne drugs that contain Accutane, and methotrexate, a drug that is used for treating cancer, arthritis, and psoriasis.
Most cases of cleft palate are obvious as soon as the child is born, so they don’t require any special tests before a diagnosis is made. However, it is becoming more common for the baby to be diagnosed before he or she is born. This is done using an ultrasound, which is a test that uses sound waves to create a picture of the developing fetus. Doctors may be able to detect facial structure abnormalities by analyzing the pictures. Cleft palate can be harder to diagnose than cleft lip, since it occurs inside the baby’s mouth, making it more difficult to see.
If you have a family history of cleft palate, you can see a genetic counselor before you become pregnant who can help determine your risk of passing the condition on to your children. Taking prenatal vitamins before conceiving and during the pregnancy can help reduce the risk of birth defects including cleft palate. Avoiding the use of tobacco and alcohol during pregnancy will also be helpful, as these substances increase the risk of your baby developing the cleft palate birth defect.