Cleft Lip and Palate

Causes of cleft

After a diagnosis of cleft lip and/or palate it is both common and normal for parents to ask themselves “Why did it happen to us?” Only a few of the families we spoke to had other family members who were born with cleft lip and/or palate. However, most knew other families where someone had been born with a cleft before they received their own diagnosis. With time, most families were able to come to terms with the fact that their baby would have a cleft and that it was not due to any fault of their own or their lifestyle, but due to natural circumstances that were beyond their control. 
Healthcare professionals do not know exactly why some people are born with a cleft lip and/or palate. However, there is some evidence of a genetic link where cleft lip and/or palate occurs several times in one family. There is also evidence that cleft occurs more frequently in some racial groups than others. At present, it is not known whether tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use increase the risk of having a baby born with a cleft lip and/or palate.

In the families we spoke to many mothers questioned their own behaviour even if they didn’t drink or smoke during their pregnancy. Some families experienced distress despite the fact that the cleft was probably not caused by anything under their control. On a positive note, most families took reassurance from the health professionals looking after them that the cause of their child’s cleft was not due to any fault of their own.
A few mothers had negative reactions from people they knew who suggested that they must have used illicit drugs or drank excessively during pregnancy. Understandably, this caused them lots of unnecessary distress as these beliefs have no basis.
Sometimes parents are offered genetic testing after a child is born with cleft lip and/or palate to see whether the family is at risk of other related conditions. Families may also be offered genetic counselling if they are considering whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. Some families felt they would have liked to have had genetic counselling but it was not offered. 
Last reviewed June 2017.

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