Flat Heads in Babies

flat heads in babies
Babies often get misshapen heads from laying on one side or even from being squished while still inside mom. The misshapen head is referred to as plagiocephaly, scaphocephaly, or brachycephaly — depending on the overall shape (see photo under “Diagnosis” below).

These head shapes, especially plagiocephaly, are very common. If I knew I’d one day have a blog, I would have taken pictures showing the head shape of my child who had positional plagiocephaly. My baby is now a teen with a normal head shape, so it’s too late for photos.

Positional plagiocephaly

Below is a picture of a baby with positional plagiocephaly. Note the flat left back of the head. In this picture you can’t see the ears, but we look to see if the ear and forehead are pushed forward to help assess the severity of the plagiocephaly.

flat head, plagiocephaly
Flat heads in babies are common from laying on one side too often.

Photosource: By Gzzz via Wikimedia Commons

Below I’ll summarize the guidelines for the diagnosis of as well as treatment options for plagiocephaly with repositioning, physical therapy and helmets from the Joint Section on Pediatric Neurosurgery of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.

Diagnosis:

Most of the time we can make the diagnosis in the office without any special tests or x-rays. If there is a concern that one of the sutures (growth plates between the bones of the skull) is closed, a skull x-ray or an ultrasound of the area in question can assess if the suture is open or closed. If the diagnosis is still in question after those studies, a CT of the head may be needed. The picture below shows how the skull shape changes if one or more of the sutures is closed (represented by a missing line).

plagiocephalyPhoto source:By Xxjamesxx, via Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia

Treatments:

Reposition

The first treatment used to treat plagiocephaly is repositioning. Repositioning helps with all infants with positional plagiocephaly to some extent.

Repositioning is just what it sounds like: change the position of your baby so the side down alternates when sleeping or laying.

Put fun items to look at on alternating sides when baby is laying on the back when awake.

When feeding, hold baby in alternate arms so when they turn to face you they are looking different directions each feed. (This happens naturally when breastfeeding.)

Use supervised tummy time several times each day and hold baby upright as much as possible to get baby off the back of his head when not sleeping.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a warning against the use of positioning pillows due to risk of suffocation.

Stretching and massage

A stiff neck often is associated with positional plagiocephaly because it limits head movement to one side. The stiff neck is called torticollis.

Torticollis makes it difficult for baby to turn his head to one side, but gentle stretching can help. I show parents how to hold one shoulder down while gently moving the head to stretch the neck – with each ear to the shoulder and then the chin to each shoulder.

It’s important to do a gentle but firm stretch, no jerking or forced movements.

Massaging the neck muscles first can help.

Think of what you do when you have a sore neck and want to stretch it. Working with a Physical Therapist has been shown to be more effective than repositioning alone and as effective as positioning devices (which are not recommended due to safety concerns).
Helmets

Babies with persistent moderate to severe plagiocephaly after repositioning and physical therapy may benefit from a helmet to mold the head to a round shape.

The helmet corrects more rapidly than positioning alone, so is also used if there is significant plagiocephaly in older infants.

I reserve this option for the more severe cases that don’t respond to repositioning and physical therapy since it is expensive and often not covered by insurance.

I don’t know if these recommendations will make it easier for insurance to pay for a helmet when indicated.

Prevention is key!

We have significantly decreased the risk of SIDS by placing babies on their backs to sleep, but have seen a rise in flat heads due to their positioning. Prevention of the flatness involves several positioning strategies.

Supervised tummy time

Start supervised tummy time early on – the longer you wait to start, the more Baby might resist it. I see so many parents who are hesitant to put Baby on his or her stomach. Concerns range from the umbilical cord stump still being on and bothering the baby (it won’t) to spitting up will worsen (test it out, for many babies it’s actually better) to “I thought babies should never be on their stomachs” (only when sleeping or not supervised).

Tummy time is an important time for baby to develop muscle strength. It needs to be supervised, but it can be a fun time to interact with Baby. Lay face to face and talk to Baby, encouraging him or her to look up. Grab a brightly colored object and move it around for Baby to watch. Enjoy your play time.

tummy time, prevent flat heads
Supervise tummy time when Baby’s awake!
Back to sleep

It’s important for babies to sleep on their back, but they tend to have their head facing one direction or another. They should alternate which side they face, but many babies have a stiff neck and favor looking to one side. Think of when you wake with a stiff neck – probably from positioning overnight. Many babies are in the same position for quite awhile at the end of pregnancy – of course they’re stiff!

Massage & Stretch

If Baby’s neck is stiff, you can massage his or her neck and shoulder muscles gently. Slowly move the head right and left (chin to each shoulder) and side to side (ear to shoulder). Don’t quickly force the head movement, but think of what you do if you have a stiff and sore neck.

The more frequently you stretch it out, the better it feels, right? I recommend stretching Baby’s neck with each diaper change (before the change or after you wash your hands!) until it isn’t stiff for several days and Baby moves his or her head easily without your help.

For more:

See this American Academy of Pediatrics article on how to prevent flat heads in babies.

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Author: DrStuppy

I am a pediatrician and mother of two teens. I have a passion for sharing health related information.

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