What is cleft lip and palate?

illustration of female doctor A cleft is a gap or split in the upper lip and/or roof of the mouth (palate). Cleft lip and palate are relatively common. Around one in 700 children in this country are born with a cleft lip and/or palate. A cleft happens because different areas of the face don’t join together while a baby is developing in the mother’s womb. There is no known cause. Babies can be born with a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both. It may affect one side of the lip/palate (unilateral) or both sides (bilateral).


A cleft lip can be diagnosed antenatally at the 20-week scan. A cleft palate will usually be diagnosed within 24 hours of birth.

The medical professional who diagnoses your child will make a referral to the West Midlands Regional Cleft Centre. One of our specialist nurses will make contact with you within 24 hours of receiving this referral.



Surgery is the only way to repair a cleft lip and/or palate. By three months of age, most babies with a cleft lip will be strong enough to have their lip repaired. Part of the operation involves stitching the skin of the lip together. The cleft palate is usually repaired between six and ten months of age. The main aim of this operation is to join the muscles so that the palate works properly. This helps with the development of speech.

Older children

As the child gets older, speech and language therapy will be applied as required along with the correction of teeth and potentially a bone graft, which will be carried out at about eight and a half to nine and a half years old. This is a procedure in which the tooth-bearing bone of the upper jaw is restored (usually using bone from the hip). It is a routine procedure carried out under anaesthetic however not every child with a cleft requires a bone graft - only those where the cleft at birth involved the gum (cleft lip and alveolus or complete cleft lip and palate). Please see our information leaflet regarding pre/post-op care: Your alveolar bone graft operation.