Did you know that mothers could reduce the risk of having babies born with cleft lip and cleft palate?Although the causes of this congenital malformation are not well understood, research show that folic acid taken in early pregnancy can reduce the risk. Folic acid is available in plenty in vegetables. Broccoli is known to be rich in this nutrient. "We advise mothers to take a lot of greens," says Dr Godfrey Kiruhi, chairman of Operation Smile Nyeri site.Cleft lip and palate is one of the most common birth malformations, affecting one in 700 births in Kenya, he says.Mothers are advised to take their newborns to antenatal clinics, where folic acid supplements are given. However, he said folic acid is not a guarantee against birth defects but only lowers the risk.From next week, some 150 children with cleft lip and cleft palate are expected to benefit from free surgery to correct the birth defects.The week-long exercise is organised by Operation Smile, a charity dedicated to putting back the cheer on persons with the defect.Dr Kimani Wanjeri, one of the surgeons involved in Operation Smile exercises, says causes of cleft lip are still subjects of ongoing research. Wanjeri , a lecturer at University of Nairobi, says factors such as some drugs used by mothers during pregnancy could cause birth defects, including the cleft lip and cleft palate.The plastic and reconstructive surgeon, advises expectant mothers to reveal their condition whenever they visit hospitals. "It is also common practice for doctors to ask mothers if they are pregnant before prescribing certain drugs," he said.The defect is also hereditary, sometimes being observed across close relatives.Smoking and consumption of alcohol during pregnancy also cause of birth defects, and mothers are strongly advised to keep off.Wanjeri says the level of awareness on surgical options is low and some mothers leave their children to grow to adulthood without seeking help.A cleft lip forms when the tissue around the upper lip fails to form completely during pregnancy. Cleft palate happens when the same fails for the upper roof of the mouth.The deformity is a bother to babies as it may hamper suckling, development of speech and may also cause ear infections.Wanjeri said reconstructive surgery for children with cleft lip is recommended at the minimum age of three months, when tissue has formed well. For those with cleft palate, the minimum age is one year.