You may have seen an infant wearing a tiny helmet resembling those worn
by your favorite sports star, but these devices offer more than head protection
from a sudden impact. They are a cure for flat head syndrome.
With flat head syndrome, formally called positional plagiocephaly, flat
spots develop on the back or side of a baby's head, usually by the
time the infant is 4 months old. In 2013, the journal
Pediatrics published a study that estimated roughly 47 percent of babies have this
This percentage may seem surprisingly high, and there's a reason cases
have been growing for the past 24 years. In 1992, the American Academy
of Pediatrics recommended that parents should put infants to sleep on
their backs to prevent sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
Steve Kwon, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at
St. Jude Heritage Medical Group, says, “Infants' skull bones are soft to accommodate future
growth, so if babies sleep on their backs and tend to lie in the same
position because they can't yet roll over or move their head, the
bones can be molded and flattened over time."
That's not the only cause of flat head syndrome. Dr. Kwon adds that
multiples such as twins and triplets can have flat spots from their cramped
position in the womb. Babies born prematurely have softer skull bones,
making them more likely to develop the condition.
"A pediatrician can diagnose the condition by looking at the child's
head, but parents may notice signs, too: The back of the head isn't
symmetrically rounded, there's hair loss on one side of the head or
the ear on the flattened side of the head may jut forward," Dr. Kwon
says. "If parents suspect there's a problem, they should set
up a doctor's appointment as soon as possible--treatment should begin
between the ages of 4 months and 12 months, while the bones of the skull
are still soft."
Infant helmets are actually prescribed by doctors for more advanced cases
of flat head syndrome. If a baby has a milder form of the condition, or
if parents want to take preventive action, Dr. Kwon recommends the following ideas:
Give babies a lot of tummy time. Until an infant can roll over independently, some play time while laying
stomach-side down is recommended, with parent supervision. Newborns can
spend a few minutes each day laying on their bellies in a parent's
lap, working up to 20 minutes of daily tummy time on a safe surface, such
as a blanket on the floor, by the time they are about 4 months old. "It
also helps strengthen many muscles in the baby's upper body, such
as the neck and shoulders," Dr. Kwon says.
Change sleeping positions. "Parents of younger infants can place the baby's head a certain
way when setting them in the crib--tilted toward the right one day, then
facing left the next," Dr. Kwon says. "If there's already
a flat spot, try to keep that side facing up as much as possible. Parents
should never stop putting babies to sleep on their backs."
Keep babies upright. "Babies don't just rest on their backs in cribs, but in strollers,
car seats and baby swings, too," Dr. Kwon says. "When parents
hold the baby in their arms, it takes some of the pressure off the head
and gives less time for a flat spot to form. Generally, flat spots tend
to not be an issue once babies begin sitting up and rolling over, and
can move their head more."
Follow doctor's orders. Sometimes, a pediatrician will give parents stretching or physical therapy
exercises to do with the infant at home. "Babies with flat head syndrome
can also end up with tight neck muscles, a condition that's called
torticollis," Dr. Kwon says. "If those muscles aren't loosened
up, it's harder for the baby to move his or her head and flat spots
can continue to worsen."
"Parents should know that flat head syndrome doesn't cause brain
damage, nor does it mean the baby has stunted brain growth or delayed-development
issues," Dr. Kwon says. "And it's worth reiterating that
parents should never put their child to sleep stomach-side down to avoid
flat head syndrome. It may seem like an easy fix for the problem, but
the chance of SIDS isn't worth it. In most cases, these recommended
tips can solve flat head syndrome."
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.