July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month

Kristen Gill, M.D., Resident, PGY2, Baylor College of Medicine, The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

Cleft palate, cleft lip, and craniosynostosis are among the most common types of craniofacial conditions a child may have at birth.

What is a cleft palate and a cleft lip?  A congenital abnormality, or birth defect, occurs when a baby is developing in the womb and normal growth is affected in some way. A cleft palate is a congenital abnormality that occurs very early during pregnancy when the roof of the mouth, or the palate, does not form properly. The right and left halves of the palate are supposed to meet in the middle and “glue” together when in the womb, but this does not occur. A cleft lip is a similar: it occurs when the two parts of the upper lip do not meet in the middle and do not connect properly. A baby can be born with either a cleft lip or a cleft palate or both. These can affect how a baby breathes and eats. Special bottles are sometimes needed to help the baby eat properly. About 1 out of 700 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate. About one out of 1,000 babies are born with just a cleft palate.

What is craniosynostosis?   When a baby is born, the skull is not completely closed together. It is made up of several puzzle pieces. You can recognize this as the baby’s soft spot on the top of their head. Over time, those puzzle pieces, or different parts of the skull, grow and fuse together. Sometimes these pieces can fuse together too early while the brain is still growing. This is called craniosynostosis. About one in 2,500 children are born with craniosynostosis

Cleft palate, cleft lip, craniosynostosis, and other craniofacial conditions can vary from minor to life threatening; nearly all require surgery to repair the abnormality. There are several reasons why these conditions occur: genetics, high blood sugar levels during pregnancy, or lack of folic acid early in pregnancy.  Sometimes we do not understand why these conditions occur. But there are ways you can decrease the risk of having a baby with a craniofacial abnormality. 

What can you do to help prevent craniofacial abnormalities?

  • Start a daily prenatal vitamin when you are considering becoming pregnant
  • If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar before and during pregnancy
  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid certain medications during pregnancy. Talk to your health care provider before starting or stopping any medications

If you have questions about craniofacial abnormalities, talk to your doctor or your baby’s health care provider. If you wish to see a craniofacial pediatric specialist, contact the Craniofacial Clinic at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio by calling 210.704.4708.

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