Babies are born with soft heads to allow for the amazing brain growth that occurs in the first year of life. As a result, their heads are easily “molded.” Passage through the birth canal during childbirth can cause a newborn’s head to look pointy or too long. So it’s normal for a baby’s skull, which is made up of several bones that eventually fuse together, to be a bit oddly shaped during the few days or weeks after birth.
Caregivers should always place babies on their back to sleep to help prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), even with the possibility of flat head syndrome. Avoiding swings, car seats, bouncy chairs, and other devices is safest for sleep and also helps to make sure that babies can move their heads freely.
So what can parents do when the flat head syndrome is due to a sleeping or lying position? Simple practices like changing a baby’s sleep position, holding your baby, and providing lots of “tummy time” can help it go away. Try these tips:
Practice Tummy Time
Provide plenty of supervised time for your baby to lie on the stomach while awake during the day. Tummy time helps normal shaping of the back the head, encourages a baby’s learning and discovery of the world, and helps babies strengthen their neck muscles and learn to push up on their arms. This helps develop the muscles needed for crawling and sitting up.
Vary positions in the crib
Consider how you lay your baby down in the crib. Most right-handed parents carry infants cradled in their left arms and lay them down with the heads to their left. In this position, the infant must turn to the right to look out into the room. Position your baby in the crib to encourage active turning of the head to the side that’s not flattened.
Hold your baby more often
Limit the time your child spends lying on the back or with the head resting against a flat surface (such as in car seats, strollers, swings, bouncy seats, and play yards). For instance, if your baby has fallen asleep in a car seat, take your baby out of the seat when you get home rather than leaving your little one snoozing in the seat. Pick up and hold your baby often, which will take the pressure off the head.
Change the head position while your baby sleeps
Change the position of your baby’s head (from left to right, right to left) when your baby is sleeping on the back. Even if your baby moves around during the night, place your child with the rounded side of the head touching the mattress and the flattened side facing up. Don’t use wedge pillows or other devices to keep your baby in one position.
Grab your child’s favorite stuffed animal, pick up a brightly colored toy, or shake a rattle. Then slowly move around the room. The child’s eyes – and neck – will follow you.
Most babies with flat head syndrome also have some degree of torticollis. So physical therapy and a home exercise program usually are part of treatment. A physical therapist can teach you exercises to do with your baby involving stretching. Most moves involve stretching the neck to the side opposite the tilt. In time, the neck muscles will get longer and the neck will straighten itself out. The exercises are simple but must be done correctly.
A doctor can prescribe a helmet for flat head syndrome. The helmet is designed to fit a baby loosely where the head is flat and tightly where it is round. In the helmet, the head can’t grow where it is already round. So it grows where it’s flatter.
Helmets make the head rounder quicker than time and normal growth. On average, though, babies who get helmets and those who don’t have the same results after a couple years. Talk to your doctor about whether a helmet could help your baby.
Flat head syndrome improves with time and natural growth.
As babies grow, they begin to change position themselves during sleep, so their heads aren’t in the same position. When babies can sit on their own, a flat spot usually won’t get any worse. Then, over months and years, as the skull grows, the flattening will improve, even in severe cases. As hair grows in over the first few years, the flat spot often becomes less noticeable as well.
Flat head syndrome doesn’t affect a baby’s brain growth. But having a stiff neck can slow early development. Physical therapy for torticollis should include a check of the baby’s progress and extra exercises to treat any delays.
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Kidshealth.org. 2020. Flat Head Syndrome (Positional Plagiocephaly) (For Parents) – Nemours Kidshealth. [online] Available at: <https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/positional-plagiocephaly.html> [Accessed 23 December 2020].
The Conversation. 2020. Do You Need To Worry If Your Baby Has A Flat Head?. [online] Available at: <https://theconversation.com/do-you-need-to-worry-if-your-baby-has-a-flat-head-71794> [Accessed 23 December 2020].