Paediatrics: Orofacial clefts

2021-03-05 12:00 AM

Orofacial clefts are due to failure of fusion of maxillary and pre-maxillary processes.

Orofacial clefts

Orofacial clefts are due to failure of fusion of maxillary and pre-maxillary processes. They may be unilateral or bilateral and result in cleft lip and/or cleft palate. The incidence is 71/1000 live births.


Multifactorial and includes genetic and environmental factors. 66% of clefts are isolated. The majority have no obvious cause.

  • Environmental factors: maternal folic acid deficiency; maternal exposure to alcohol, tobacco, steroids, anticonvulsants, and retinoic acid.
  • 730% are syndromic, e.g. Pierre–Robin syndrome (large midline posterior cleft palate, mandible hypoplasia, prone to upper airway obstruction due to a posteriorly displaced tongue).


  • Refer to specialized ‘cleft lip and palate’ multidisciplinary team.
  • Possible upper airway obstruction is a recognized complication of a large cleft palate, e.g. Pierre–Robin syndrome. If it occurs or is likely:

nurse prone;

the nasopharyngeal airway may be helpful;

monitor SpO2—a low or worsening SpO2 is an ominous sign and should be taken very seriously;

intubation may be difficult and require specialist (ENT) support.

  • Feeding problems are common. Specialist nursing input, special feed devices and prosthetic plate (obturator) may all be required if the cleft palate is too large to allow adequate suck.
  • Be aware of the increased risk of infections (aspiration pneumonia and, later, secretory otitis media with conductive hearing loss). Treat as appropriate.
  • Surgical repair of the lip is usually at 3mths; palate at 6–12mths.
  • Later speech defects and dental problems can occur requiring speech therapy and dental input respectively. 


Repair of unilateral complete or incomplete lesions usually produces a good result. As well as those complications described above later problems may include:

  • Hindered parental bonding.

Psychological morbidity.