Flat head in Babies and Toddlers

Does your baby sleep on the back? Though it has been proved that this position is the best one for your child, it does come with a side effect. A campaign launched in 1994, “Safe to Sleep” was to control the steadily rising numbers of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The initiative proved to be successful and the numbers of infant deaths decreased by over 50%, but this also gave rise to flat head syndrome (Plagiocephaly). The term is German and roughly translates to ‘Oblique Head’.

The condition is a common one and can affect about 50% of 7-12 weeks old newborns. But why does it affect only newborns and toddlers? Babies are born with soft skulls to allow room for brain development and growth, and so the head is prone to molding. Continuous pressure to any part of the head can cause Plagiocephaly.

Detecting Plagiocephaly

The best way to deal with this problem is to first know all about it. The more you know of the condition, the more likely is the chance of you helping your child.

The severity of the condition depends on which type of plagiocephaly your child has. The most common form is Deformational Plagiocephaly, which is caused by regular pressure to the skull. Synostotic Plagiocephaly, on the other hand, is the premature fusion of skull bones.

A flat head is quite easy to detect. The condition gives a baby’s head an elongated look which might be more prominent if you look from the sides. In other cases, you might notice a flat surface at the back of your child’s head, or a bald patch. This flattening might even occur on the sides of the head.

Causes

There might be several things that can cause flat head but the most common one is sleeping on the back. However, this does not in any way indicate that all children who sleep on their backs are victims of Flat Head Syndrome.

In Utero Constraint

When a baby is crammed in the womb, several natural conditions might lead to flat head.

Premature Babies

Before modern researches were conducted, flat head was mostly associated to in utero constraint. In cases of premature births, most of the newborns have Flat Head Syndrome. Since they don’t get much time in the womb, their skulls are even softer than full-term babies. Because of their frail health, these children spend some time in NICUs, which in turn can make the flat head more prominent.

Torticollis

A small, cramped womb may cause torticollis (stiffening of the neck muscles). The stiff neck muscles restrict the movement of baby’s neck and so they prefer to keep their head in the same position when lying down.

Multiple Births

A baby might develop a flat head because of pressure from a twin or multiple births. This usually occurs when twins remain in a back-to-back position with each other. The pressure to the head might cause flat head to either one or both the babies.

Narrow Maternal Pelvis

Numerous babies are subjected to flat head because of a narrow or misaligned maternal pelvis. The passage through the birth canal may cause a baby’s head to be elongated.

If your child’s head looks oddly shaped right after birth, one of these might be the cause. But if the duration of the flat spots exceeds 6 weeks, it’s better to consult a qualified professional.

Back Sleeping

Leaving babies to lie on their backs for a prolonged time might result in flat head. Many car seats and infant swings don’t come with proper head gear and thus also contribute to causing flat head.

Effects of Plagiocephaly on Brain Development

It’s not only the physical deformation that proves worrisome for the parents, it is the uncertainty of the effects of flat head syndrome. Pre-1990 researches have argued that there is no connection between brain development and environmental experiences of a child. But recent studies have observed that there certainly is a much deeper connection between the two.

A study conducted in 2011 found that ‘Toddlers with deformational plagiocephaly continue to exhibit development delays compared to toddlers who don’t have the condition’.

According to a study by Miller and Clarren, 39.7% of children with deformational plagiocephaly had to be assisted through special help programs. Developmental difficulties and motor control were also the problems these children had to face.

Treatments for Plagiocephaly

For every parent, having a plagiocephalic child would be distressing but there are ways to rid your child of this problem. Starting at a young age, the condition is easily treatable as long as you get help from a professional. But before going for full-fledged therapy sessions and surgeries, try a few easy treatment strategies.

Extend Tummy Time

Babies need to have some tummy time so they can maximize the use of their upper neck muscles. This exercise will not only help in developing their motor skills but will also lessen the pressure on their skull. Give your child at least 3-4 tummy times a day and its best to start right after birth.

Reposition the Head

Reposition your child’s head at regular intervals to reduce the pressure on the affected area(s). The same goes for when your child is in the car seat or infant swing. Limit the time they spend there to fasten the process of recovery.

Flat head Pillows

Many pillows are available in the market that can counter the effects of flat head. These pillows have been found quite effective and numerous satisfied parents have claimed that the pillows show positive results within weeks. Use these pillows in your child’s car seat and infant swing as well.

At the early stages, the condition is curable and so it’s better to catch the problem and treat it early on. Some parents might want to take it slow and wait to see if the situation is improving on its own or not. But considering the serious development delays plagiocephaly can cause, it’s advisable to get help from the beginning. The best option you have is to follow a preventive strategy and pay attention to your child’s sleeping habits and head positioning.

© Teresa Boardman, Nanny Options 2017.

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