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In the early weeks of development, long before a child is born, the right and left sides of the lip and the roof of the mouth normally grow together. Occasionally, however, in about one of every 800 babies, those sections don't quite meet. A child born with a separation in the upper lip is said to have a cleft lip.
Children born with a cleft lip or palate may need the skills of several medical professionals to correct the problems associated with the cleft. In addition to needing plastic surgery to repair the opening, these children may have problems with their feeding and their teeth, their hearing, their speech, and their psychological development as they grow up.
In cleft lip surgery, the most common problem is asymmetry, when one side of the mouth and nose does not match the other side. The goal of cleft lip surgery is to close the separation in the first operation. Occasionally, a second operation may be needed.
A cleft lip can range in severity from a slight notch in the red part of the upper lip to a complete separation of the lip extending into the nose. Clefts can occur on one or both sides of the upper lip. Surgery is generally done when the child is about 10 weeks old.
To repair a cleft lip, the surgeon will make an incision on either side of the cleft from the mouth into the nostril. He or she will then turn the dark pink outer portion of the cleft down and pull the muscle and the skin of the lip together to close the separation. Muscle function and the normal "cupid's bow" shape of the mouth are restored. The nostril deformity often associated with cleft lip may also be improved at the time of lip repair or in a later surgery.
Your child may be restless for awhile after surgery, but your doctor can prescribe medication to relieve any discomfort. Elbow restraints may be necessary for a few weeks to prevent your baby from rubbing the stitched area.
If dressings have been used, they'll be removed within a day or two, and the stitches will either dissolve or be removed within five days. Your doctor will advise you on how to feed your child during the first few weeks after surgery.
It's normal for the surgical scar to appear to get bigger and redder for a few weeks after surgery. This will gradually fade, although the scar will never totally disappear. In many children, however, it's barely noticeable because of the shadows formed by the nose and upper lip.