'Cleft lip' is mild birth defect that's repaired relatively easily


November 17, 1992|By Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe | Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe,Contributing Writers

Q: What is a hare lip and what can be done about it? We were told a cousin's baby was born with one, and we're embarrassed to ask.

A: You have probably heard the term "cleft lip" used for this mild birth defect. Early in development, the upper lip and roof of the mouth are formed when tissue growing in from each side of the face meets tissue growing down from the nose. If the parts don't grow together properly, there will be an indentation or defect in the upper lip. Sometimes the defect continues all the way up into the nostril and even involves the roof of the mouth (cleft palate). Most often the cleft, or opening, is only on one side. The split in the lip looks somewhat like the divided upper lip of a rabbit, or hare, hence "hare lip."

There are probably both genetic and environmental causes of cleft lip, but in most cases the cause is unknown.

When a baby is born with a cleft lip, doctors look carefully for cleft palate and other birth defects. Often no other problems are discovered. The baby is otherwise perfectly normal and healthy. Until the defect in the lip is repaired, the baby may have difficulty sucking and need special feeding. Plastic surgery is often performed within the first few days or weeks of life and has become so sophisticated that the child is left with only a very subtle scar on an otherwise normal-appearing lip. If the baby has a cleft palate too, it is repaired when the baby is a few months old.

Parents of babies with birth defects are often sad that their baby is not perfect. They naturally regret that their baby will need surgery. Fortunately for your cousin, a cleft lip is a relatively simple problem. You can help by thinking of the new baby as normal and beautiful.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

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