Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Cleft lip and cleft palate

5-minute read

What is cleft lip or palate?

Cleft lip or palate develops when parts of the lip, upper jaw or roof of the mouth don't join properly in early pregnancy, resulting in a 'cleft' or opening. While this condition is congenital (present at birth), there is a range of treatments available for babies who are born with it.

About one baby in every 800 in Australia is born with a cleft lip or palate.

What are the types of cleft lip or palate?

The type of condition depends on which parts don't join together.

Cleft lip: The upper lip is made up of two large parts at each side and a small part in the middle. A cleft happens if one or more of these three parts fails to join together when the fetus is 7 to 9 weeks old. Sometimes a cleft lip can be just a small notch in the gum.

Cleft palate: The roof of the mouth forms when bones and soft tissues move from the sides of the mouth and join in the middle. If this fails to happen when the fetus is 10 to 12 weeks old, there will be a gap in the roof. This can just be in the soft tissue at the back of the mouth or may extend all the way forward to the gum.

Cleft lip and cleft palate: When the upper lip, gum and roof of the mouth fail to join together when the fetus is 12 weeks old, there will be a cleft. This can be on one side only (unilateral) or on both sides (bilateral). The gap is between the mouth cavity and the nasal cavity.

Image showing the different types of cleft lip and cleft palate in a baby.
Image showing the different types of cleft lip and cleft palate in a baby.

What are the symptoms of cleft lip or palate?

A cleft lip or palate can lead to significant problems with feeding since the baby will find it hard to suck. Later, babies may also experience problems with their speech and hearing, ear infections, dental decay and jaw development. Children and adults who were born with cleft palate may also have a nasal speaking voice.

How is cleft lip or palate diagnosed?

Cleft lip or palate are usually noticed as soon as the baby is born and will start to be managed right away.

The condition is often picked up during an ultrasound at about 18 weeks of pregnancy. If cleft lip or palate is suspected, the doctor may recommend an amniocentesis, where the amniotic fluid is tested to check for other birth defects.

If you are pregnant and this happens to you, you should discuss with your doctor both the benefits and the risks of having amniocentesis.

How is cleft lip or palate treated?

When a baby is born with cleft lip or palate, the first priority is arranging how to feed them. It can be extremely difficult for the baby to breastfeed, and they usually need to be fed with a bottle and special nipple. In some cases, the baby will at first need a tube through their nose into their stomach to help with feeding. A midwife who is trained in cleft lip or palate will advise on how to feed the baby.

Surgery to repair a cleft lip is normally done when the baby is between 3 and 6 months. Surgery to repair a cleft palate is done between 9 and 18 months. The type of operation depends on how the lip and palate have formed. The surgery is done in hospital by a specialist plastic surgeon. Two or 3 different operations might be needed.

As they grow older, children with cleft lip or palate need to be monitored closely for hearing or speech difficulties. This is because they can have problems with their middle ear. They will also need to see a dentist and possibly an orthodontist for specialised dental treatment.

Cleft lip and palate repair usually leaves a visible scar and noticeable differences in the nose, gums and teeth. For some people, this visible difference can cause problems with self-esteem because of how they believe others perceive them. Others cope well with these differences.

When to seek help

Babies with cleft lip or palate will need help from a team of specialists in the cleft clinic (usually located at your nearest state children’s hospital). A cleft coordinator will guide you. Some of the specialists you might see include:

  • cleft coordinator
  • speech pathologist
  • paediatrician
  • lactation consultant
  • dietitian
  • audiologist
  • ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon
  • dentist
  • orthodontist

Your child should be seen regularly by a cleft clinic, usually at 18-24 months, then at 3, 5, 8, 12 and 16-18 years old.

You can find your local cleft clinic by visiting the CleftConnect Australia website.

Resources and support

The Services Australia’s Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Scheme covers the costs of some orthodontic work, teeth removal, oral and maxillofacial surgery, and some general and prosthodontic services provided by your family dentist. Treatment under the scheme must start before the person turns 22 and treatment will stop when they turn 28. A doctor may apply for additional support for people after this age.

For more information, advice and support about cleft lip or palate, visit:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2021

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Cleft lip and cleft palate

A cleft lip and/or cleft palate occurs when separate areas of a baby’s face do not join together properly when developing during pregnancy.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Cleft lip and cleft palate | Raising Children Network

Cleft lip and cleft palate is when the lip or roof of the mouth doesn’t close over properly. Children with cleft lip and palate need surgery and other therapy.

Read more on website

Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Scheme - Services Australia

Medicare benefits to help with treatment costs for cleft lip and cleft palate conditions.

Read more on Centrelink website

Cleft palate and cleft lip - Better Health Channel

Most cleft palates and cleft lips can be repaired so that appearance and speech develop normally.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Cleft Lip and Palate Scheme - Australian Dental Association

The Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Scheme was created by the Australian Government to help patients born with a cleft lip and/or palate to access surgical and dental services.

Read more on website

Cleft lip and palate | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

A cleft lip or palate develops during the early stages of pregnancy, when gaps in a baby's face and mouth structures don't close as they should

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Cleft Lip & Palate - Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons

A cleft is a birth defect where the two halves of the palate and/or the lip don’t fuse properly, leaving an open space or ‘cleft’.

Read more on Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons website

Reconstructive surgery - Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons

Reconstructive surgery includes Breast Reconstruction, Burns and Scarring (scar revision), Cleft Lip Palate, Hand Surgery and Skin Cancer.

Read more on Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons website

Children’s health care - Child health and safety - Services Australia

We cover some or all of your child’s health care costs.

Read more on Centrelink website

Dental services | NT.GOV.AU

Free dental services, making a dental appointment, major dental clinics and visiting dental services in remote areas.

Read more on NT Health website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.