Cleft lips are one of the most common birth defects in the U.S., with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating about 4,440 babies will be born with a cleft lip this year. Parents-to-be often worry about these conditions and naturally wonder: Is cleft lip genetic? Many factors, including family history, can increase the likelihood of a baby developing a cleft lip. Here's how to assess your child's risk.
What Is a Cleft Lip?
A cleft lip is a split or separation that occurs between the fourth and seventh week of pregnancy, wherein the developing tissues of the baby's lip don't join completely. A cleft can occur on one side of the lip, both and occasionally in the middle. In more severe cases, the opening of the lip can expand into the nose. Some infants with a cleft lip also have openings in their palates, but a cleft lip can occur without this additional defect.
Although cleft lips are always noticeable at birth, it can be seen in an ultrasound while in the womb as well. Whenever a cleft is diagnosed, however, doctors immediately coordinate the baby's care with a team of medical and dental professionals who specialize in treating this type of birth defect. One or two surgeries may be needed to repair a child's cleft lip, and these are usually done before the child's first birthday.
The cause is often unknown, according to the KidsHealth, but a family history of cleft lip or palate increases a child's risk of developing one. When a baby inherits a cleft-causing gene from either their mother or father, this genetic component – along with an environmental trigger – can interfere with the proper formation of the baby's lip.
Women who smoke or drink alcohol, for example, may be more likely to give birth to a baby with a cleft than those who don't do either when expecting. Taking anticonvulsant medications to treat epilepsy during the first three months of a pregnancy can similarly increase the baby's risk of clefting. Medications used to treat acne, cancer, arthritis and psoriasis are also associated with this defect when taken in the early months of a pregnancy.
Sex and race can also play a role: The Mayo Clinic states male children are twice as likely to develop a cleft lip as female children. And the condition is statistically more common in Asian and Native American babies, while clefts are least likely to be seen in babies with African Americans parents. Parental obesity and diabetes are thought to further increase the risk of cleft lip and palate, as is exposure to chemicals or viruses during the baby's development in the womb.
Growing Up with a Cleft
Babies born with cleft lips face a variety of challenges. Depending on the severity of the cleft, they may primarily have eating difficulties. Luckily, baby bottles with special nipples are available that make the feeding process easier. A child with a cleft lip may have difficulty speaking as well, but most speech problems are resolved through surgery or basic speech therapy.
It's common for children with clefts to have extra, missing or malformed teeth, and they frequently have more cavities than other children. Because of this potential, as well as the need for braces to align adult teeth, kids should be closely monitored by their dentist and an orthodontist. Parents should make sure their child is brushing twice daily. And as usual, flossing should be done daily to help prevent cavities from setting in between two adjacent teeth.
At the end of the day, is cleft lip genetic? Yes, risk of cleft lip can be passed down through you or your spouse's genes and presdispose your child. But if you're thinking about having a baby, be sure to discuss your concerns and any environmental risks that could affect him or her with your doctor. Starting a pregnancy with the right information and precautions avoids putting your baby at risk, and ensures your baby's proper development and health for a lifetime.