Babies with Flat Heads on the Rise

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It's alarming to be told your little one has a misshapen head. But, don't worry. Flat heads can be corrected.

Ever so quietly, you tiptoe into the nursery to check on your newborn for the second, no third … oh, who are we kidding? It’s probably the 10th time tonight! Yep, still breathing. But, what you should be checking is the position of his head as he’s lying on his back. Is he facing the same direction he was last night or the night before? Did you turn him around and find that he’s facing the same favorite direction yet once again? This, among other things — like not enough tummy time — can cause your child to have an unsightly flat spot. But, don’t worry! There are ways around it.

Rise in Flat Head Cases

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) objective was to cut the amount of SIDS-related incidences with the Back-to-Sleep Campaign in 1994. While it’s widely known that this campaign has cut the risks of SIDS tremendously, it does have a side effect. “Back-sleeping obviously increases the likelihood that babies might develop flattening of the head (positional plagiocephaly),” says Amanda Petty Gammel, D.O., a pediatrician at Murfreesboro Medical Clinic.

Gammel adds that there’s definitely been an increase in cases of positional plagiocephaly. The main cause, she says, is lying in the same position regularly and for long periods of time. “Because young babies’ skulls are still soft and malleable, they can adjust over time to adapt to the shape of the surface that they’re lying on, creating a flat spot in this area,” says Gammel.

The AAP cautions that even though having your baby sleep on his back can lead to a flattened head, parents should not stop placing babies on their backs to sleep. “The recent rise in cases of plagiocephaly may also be related to increased awareness and recognition on the part of practitioners,” adds Gammel.

Correcting Flat Heads

While the look of your precious little one’s crown is not as appealing as you’d like, Gammel encourages parents not to worry so much.

“Asymmetry of the skull that’s caused by positional molding doesn’t cause developmental delays,” says Gammel. “It’s primarily a cosmetic issue. It doesn’t harm brain development and typically doesn’t cause any lasting appearance problems.”

If you don’t like the look of your baby’s flat head, there are simple ways you can correct it, although Baby will outgrow small flat spots on his own. Allow him to spend more time on his belly or as he learns to sit up, more time off of his back. However, Gammel says, in progressive or severe cases, orthotic molding helmets may be an option. Surgery is rarely indicated. “Because the majority of infants improve by 6 months of age, repositioning should be attempted as initial treatment,” adds Gammel.

Preventing Flat Heads

Take precautions to prevent your baby from ever getting a flat spot in the first place. Increased tummy time is the easiest way to do so. If Baby hates tummy time and still spends most of his time sleeping, consider another way to prevent flat head while slowly increasing his tummy time attempts.

“A baby should spend at least 30 – 60 minutes a day on it’s belly,” says Gammel. “Babies shouldn’t spend a prolonged period of time in a car seat or bouncy seat as this can also increase flattening and asymmetry of the skull,” she cautions.

“Change the direction Baby lies in the crib each week,” says Gammel. “This change will encourage him to turn his head in different directions to avoid resting in the same position all the time.” The same goes for babies that favor one side, but Gammel says to try laying him down in a different position while awake and have something interesting to look at on the opposite side to encourage him to look the other way. You can also use the above methods on preemies if you suspect a flat spot is emerging.

“Premature babies’ skulls are more malleable and therefore at a greater risk of positional plagiocephaly, but they’re also at a much higher risk of SIDS,” says Gammel. “The cosmetic inconvenience of a flat head does not outweigh the risk of dying,” she adds. Gammel says that holding your preemie more often when possible can also help reduce his chances of getting a flat spot.

Besides, who doesn’t love a little more kangaroo time with their little love? Cuddling with him until he’s snoozing away promotes better bonding anyway. Now, as you go to place him in his crib, try to remember to change the direction in which you lay him down.

Kiera Ashford is associate editor of Nashville Parent and mother of three.

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