Expert / 5 July, 2023 / My Baba

What Is Flat Head Syndrome?

Flat head syndrome is the umbrella term for a flat head condition that can appear in babies and infants. The deformity may be present at birth or can become apparent during the first few months of an infant’s life. Babies can be at risk of a flat head due to their skull remaining soft and pliable in the earliest stages of their life. This pliability exists because of the several plates of bone that fuse together, being initially loose, but they gradually join as a baby gets older.

Flat head syndrome can cause your baby’s head to appear asymmetric or misshapen from above. The following are the medical terms that describe the different types of flat head syndrome and their characteristics :

Plagiocephaly

A deformation of the head marked by an oblique slant to the skull surface, which is usually at the side of the head. The most common type is called positional plagiocephaly.

Brachycephaly

When a baby has a wider than normal head with a flattening across the back of the skull. It is usually a combination of brachycephaly and plagiocephaly, presenting as a wide, asymmetric head shape.

Torticollis

This is when a baby’s head is tilted to one side, as a result of the neck twisting to the same side. The baby may also have difficulty turning their head.

Scaphocephaly

The head shape will appear long and thin when looking down from above. This type of flathead syndrome is sometimes referred to as dolichocephaly.

 Craniosynostosis

This is a rare condition and occurs when the joints (sutures) between the bone plates in a baby’s skull stick together prematurely, meaning the skull is unable to grow properly and the head forms an unusual shape.

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What Causes Flat Head Syndrome?

Deformities can occur before your baby is even born, which is called positional moulding. The re-moulding of the skull may occur in the uterus because of restricted space in the womb. This frequently occurs in multiple births (twins or triplets) or those that require assisted delivery (intrapartum moulding).

Deformities can also occur during birth, as the baby travels through the birth canal. Passage through the birth canal can cause temporary cranial deformity and it is common for the baby to have an oddly-shaped head during the first few days or weeks after birth.

Some deformities improve naturally during the very early months of an infant’s life, without any need for treatment. The exception occurs when the infant is consistently positioned in a way that exerts pressure on one particular area of the head, turning a minor plagiocephalic deformity into a potential long-term problem that requires treatment.

Incidence of Flat Head Syndrome

The incidence of flat head syndrome is higher in infants that are born prematurely as their heads tend to be softer and more prone to moulding.

Paediatricians have reported an increase in the number of children with cranial deformities in recent years, particularly unilateral flattening of the occipital bone at the back of the head. This is generally attributed to the Back to Sleep campaign, which has dramatically reduced the incidence of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) but which without adequate care, can leave babies with permanent head shape deformities.

Parents should always place their babies on their backs when sleeping. However,  during the day when an infant is awake and their parent is with them, babies should spend at least half of their waking hours without pressure on the back of the skull, allowing it to reshape naturally. There are different techniques that can be adopted in order to try and help your baby’s head shape improve safely, these are known as repositioning techniques.

Tummy time is the most commonly known repositioning technique, which involves placing your baby on their tummy to play when awake and when you are present. Not only can this technique help to improve a flat head, but it also helps the baby to develop their spinal extensors and hips, as well as learn how to prop their arms.

If no improvement is seen by the age of five months after trying various repositioning techniques, further treatment should be considered in the form of corrective helmet therapy. Between the ages of 4-14 months is the ideal age for this type of treatment, which can help to reduce the severity of the deformity.

Please be aware that not all types of flat head syndrome can be treated using helmet therapy; however, if you are concerned about your baby’s head shape, then there are experts out there who can help and most offer free consultations.

Article by Jane Hunter, Chief Clinical Officer, Technology in Motion.

Technology in Motion are global leaders in cranial orthotic treatment, with a 100% success rate, providing effective and gentle care to babies since 1993.

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