Baby’s heads are naturally soft and pliable during the first few months of life. Flat head syndrome, or positional plagiocephaly, can develop in some babies as a result of external pressure on a baby’s soft head, typically from laying on their back or in one position for an extended time. If your child is beginning to show signs of a flattened or misshapen head, early detection by your health care provider in addition to Early Intervention services can help.
What causes flat head syndrome?
“The position of a child’s head and the length of time a child is in one particular position such as laying on their back can begin to impact the shape of a child’s head,” explains Katlyn Glendenning, a teli Pediatric Physical Therapist. In her work, Katlyn sees the following typical situations that can “mold” the head of a child.
- Newborns are typically placed on their back to sleep to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). As a result of this important recommendation, a newborn spends more time on their back and may result in the development of a misshapen head.
- Premature infants and infants with larger heads are more susceptible to flattened spots because of prolonged time on their backs in addition to pressure from the weight of their head.
- Occasionally, torticollis (stiff or twisted neck) can be associated with flat head syndrome. This condition results in tightened neck muscles which may make movement difficult resulting in limited head movement. If your child prefers to look one way or tends to “tilt” their head to one side, you should discuss this with your pediatrician.
In each of these cases, staying in one position for a prolonged time can begin to shape the soft skull structure of a young infant. If your child has difficulty moving because of physical limitations, the problem is further intensified.
I have seen children with helmets. When would a child need a helmet?
“Depending on how severe the flat spot is, your health care provider may suggest a cranial remolding helmet in addition to physical therapy. A helmet is recommended as early as possible because an infant’s skull becomes less soft and moldable as they get closer to 12 months, however a child must have adequate head control before they can start wearing a helmet,” explains Katlyn. “The helmet is worn for 23 hours a day to help reshape the head.”
How can Early Intervention help?
Whether your child needs a helmet or not, Early Intervention physical therapy services can provide strategies to parents on how to reposition and handle infants with positional plagiocephaly so the flat spot does not continue to worsen. The following are some activities that Katlyn suggests with her patients and their families.
- Alternating Positions: Consider alternating the position of your baby on the changing table or crib. Depending on which side of your infant’s head is flattened, position your baby to encourage active turning of the head to the other side.
- Achieving Developmental Milestones: As your child gets older and starts to develop head control, try having them sit upright on a firm surface, supporting their trunk to help strengthen the muscles they need for sitting on their own. As they reach milestones such as rolling, sitting, and crawling, they spend less time on their backs which will prevent flat spots.
- Tummy Time: Place your child on their tummy during their awake times to remove the pressure on their head. This supervised tummy time helps babies to strengthen their neck muscles, begin to push up on their arms, and develop the muscles needed for crawling and sitting up! Having your child lay on your chest facing you is a great way to ease into tummy time.
If you are concerned about your child, a health care provider can help! Early Intervention Services can help your child achieve the developmental milestones to enable them to reach their full potential. If you have questions, call us at 412-922-8322.