Babies can occasionally develop a flattened side or back of the head at a few months old due to spending a lot of time on their backs. This is known commonly as ‘Flat head syndrome’ or Plagiocephaly. It is fairly common affecting 1 in 5 babies and isn’t something for a parent to worry too much about as it has no effect on the brain and should slowly start to correct itself when baby starts to spend more time on their front and moving about.
A baby’s skull is fairly soft and malleable during the first year of its life, so constant pressure onto one area of the head could start to change its shape; and as newborn babies sleep up to 18 hours a day there is a lot of pressure exerted on their head.
The skull of a baby is designed to protect the baby’s brain during childbirth and to cope with the extreme pressures of passing through the birth canal. The baby’s skull is made up of 6 separate bones that are not initially fused together- this allows the baby’s head to change shape in order to pass through the birth canal, and also means that during the first year of the baby’s life the head can grow rapidly.
Premature babies are more vulnerable to this problem because their bones are even softer, and often they have spent time in special baby care units where they may lie on their backs for more uninterrupted time than if they were at home. Twins and babies from multiple births are also more vulnerable, because they have less space in the womb, and sometimes being squashed may lead to a distortion in their head shape or tension in their neck.
Causes of plagiocephaly:
- Sleeping on their back- causes pressure on the back of the baby’s head, but it is important they sleep on their back to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Problems in the womb- pressure can be put on the baby’s head before it is born due to being squashed in the womb or because there is a lack of amniotic fluid to cushion them
- Premature babies are more likely to develop flattened skulls because their skull is softer when they’re born
- Neck muscle tightness/ torticollis- this can prevent baby from turning their head a particular way, meaning pressure is applied to one side of the head only
- Craniosynostosis- is a serious cause of plagiocephaly where the parts of the skull join together too early
Symptoms of plagiocephaly:
- Flattening on one side of the head or back of the head
- Head tilted to one side
- The forehead may appear as though it is bulging on one side
- Facial abnormalities including uneven cheekbones, eye sockets, or lower jaw
What can you do to help?
As a parent, there are a few things you can try at home to encourage different positionings of baby’s head.
- Encourage as much tummy time as possible
- Use a rolled-up muslin to the side of baby’s head which they tend to turn towards
- Once baby is asleep gently try and turn their head to the opposite side
- If baby is in a carrier try and position them to the opposite side
- Use yourself (by talking, singing, making noises) or a brightly colour toy and encourage baby’s rotation of the head to both sides
- Babies often look towards light (window) or bright colours (TV) so position baby side on to this so they look in the direction they usually don’t
- If bottle-fed, make sure baby is fed from both your left and right side as this will encourage rotation of baby’s head on both sides
If you are concerned about your baby’s head or neck, a check-up with a cranial osteopath can help identify why your baby is not moving their head correctly or why your baby is developing plagiocephaly. Cranial osteopathy is a very gentle treatment that aims to help restore good balance and mobility in a baby’s head and neck.
As discussed previously, as a baby’s head is so malleable they often respond fairly quickly and effectively to treatment, and there are very few side effects to treatment- the only thing you may experience is either a very grouchy baby or a very sleepy baby for the rest of the day following treatment (and this is dependent on how their body reacts to change).
When treating babies we have to be very flexible to adapt to wherever baby is comfortable, and for this reason, we ask that you come prepared ready to bottle/ breastfeed during treatments or be equip with bright toys to distract baby for the most enjoyable experience for you both.