July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month, an effort to raise awareness and improve understanding of birth defects of the head and face, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common craniofacial birth defects include orofacial clefts (cleft lip, cleft palate, or both). Each year in the U.S., thousands of babies are born with a cleft, occurring when tissue in the baby’s upper lip or roof of the mouth does not join together completely during pregnancy.
The defect may be genetic or the result of maternal environmental exposures during pregnancy. This year, the CDC is highlighting research on the association between smoking during early pregnancy and orofacial clefts. The CDC said that although the causes of most lip and palate clefts are unknown, the 2014 Surgeon General’s report confirmed that maternal smoking during early pregnancy can cause orofacial clefts in babies. In the U.S., about 7,000 babies are born with orofacial clefts each year. Women are encouraged who are thinking about becoming pregnant to quit smoking before pregnancy or as soon as they find out that they are pregnant.
Cleft and craniofacial conditions are commonly associated with other countries, though they also occur frequently in the U.S. Cleft lip, with or without a cleft palate, is one of the most common birth defects in the U.S., affecting about 7,000 babies annually according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There is no single factor related to the cause of cleft. Sometimes clefts run in families and in some cases have been linked to environmental factors.
Clefts are usually repaired surgically in the first year of life, though many children require additional surgeries and treatments through adolescence to correct challenges to breathing, eating or speech development. Individuals born with cleft lip or palate often need specialized dental or orthodontic care throughout their lives as well. Despite unique health challenges, those born with cleft and craniofacial conditions lead fulfilling, successful and accomplished lives. Coordinated care is the best approach for successful surgical repair.
To help reduce a woman’s risk for having a baby with an orofacial cleft or other craniofacial condition, health care providers should encourage patients who are thinking about becoming pregnant to commit to a healthy lifestyle (e.g., control diabetes, quit smoking) before becoming pregnant. Health care providers should also work with them to make informed decisions about medication treatment during pregnancy. CDC continues to study birth defects, such as cleft lip and cleft palate, and how to prevent them.
With treatment, most children with orofacial clefts do well and lead a healthy life. Some children with orofacial clefts may have issues with self-esteem if they are concerned with visible differences between themselves and other children. Because children with orofacial clefts often require a variety of services that need to be provided in a coordinated manner throughout childhood and into adolescence and sometimes adulthood, Parent-to-parent support groups can prove to be useful for families of babies with birth defects of the head and face, such as orofacial clefts.