As a baby develops in the womb, the tissues in his or her face may not grow together properly. This can leave an opening, or cleft, in the lip. The patients I see vary in their needs. The cleft can:
- Appear as a small but noticeable split in the lip.
- Run through the entire lip and the edge of the nose.
- Include the palate as well. These patients typically require a different approach to correction.
For children in Fairfax and Northern Virginia, cleft lip surgery can repair the concern at an early age, improving aesthetics and function in a way that benefits patients for the rest of their lives. The procedure is a common one with typically excellent outcomes, and my staff and I make a special effort to help patients and their families feel as comfortable as possible in our care.
Why Cleft Lip Surgery?
I primarily perform cleft lip surgery for very young children. I recommend the procedure at around three months of age and encourage families to visit the practice as early as possible to begin the process. I also work with the Inova Fairfax Craniofacial Clinic Team to offer a broad range of support services for newborns with clefts. These include feeding specialists, orthodontists, audiologists, and others that become more important as the baby grows.
Cleft lip surgery is particularly important for children this young because of the multiple developments taking place. Surgery can:
- Help babies close their lips around bottles and food more easily.
- Keep lips healthy and comfortable. With a cleft lip, skin membranes can often dry out and scab over.
- Allow parents to recognize their child’s facial expressions more easily at a young age.
- Give children a more aesthetically appropriate appearance, which can be important as they grow.
Adults who were born with a cleft lip may also choose to have surgery if they are dissatisfied with their results following a childhood procedure.
What to Expect with Cleft Lip Surgery
Fairfax and Northern Virginia families come to my practice or the Inova Craniofacial Clinic for an initial consultation, and during our discussion, I help them understand:
- How the procedure works.
- What sort of outcome it can offer.
- Special considerations for children who have cleft lip surgery.
Since parents often have concerns about their child’s development, I try to stress that babies who have the procedure should be able to eat, sleep, and grow like other children, with only a small scar as the end result.
During the consultation, I examine the patient and take pictures for medical reference. If the child needs palate repair as well, I offer guidance about molding and additional surgeries that may be necessary.
On the day of cleft lip surgery:
- Parents and their child meet with me and one of our board-certified pediatric anesthesiologists. It’s an opportunity to ask questions and become more comfortable with the anesthesia portion of the procedure.
- Fairfax and Northern Virginia patients receive general anesthesia and sleep through the surgery, which lasts about three hours.
- I make incisions in the lip and the edge of the nose, bring together the lining of the lip, the muscles around the mouth, and close the cleft by carefully lining up the skin edges, recreating the plump red portion of the lip, and defining the curves of normal anatomy.
Recovering from Cleft Lip Surgery
If babies are ready to eat while they are in the recovery room, they usually go home the same day as surgery. Other Fairfax and Northern Virginia patients stay overnight to ensure that they get the hydration they need until they are comfortable drinking.
As you might expect, babies can be a bit fussy after surgery. They wear elbow guards for about a week to keep from scratching at the surgical site, and parents give pain medication during this time to help with discomfort.
I see patients on a reoccurring basis to make sure they are progressing well in their recovery and to help parents address any concerns. Keeping the surgical site moist with antibiotic ointment can sometimes speed the healing process. Other times I will seal the incisions with surgical glue, which does not need ointment on top. You will receive specific instructions about the details of care immediately after the surgery.
Once children recover fully from cleft lip surgery, they will be able to close their lips more easily and have less irritation of the oral and nasal lining. They also should be able to smile more naturally and, as they grow, feel more comfortable with their appearance.
Learn more about cleft lip surgery. Fairfax and Northern Virginia families can schedule a consultation with Dr. Jespersen by calling (703) 992-7969 or completing our contact form.