Flat-head syndrome, medically known as positional plagiocephaly, is a condition that affects infants and young children. Your diagnostic sign? A flat spot, either on the side or the back of the head, often accompanied by decreased hair growth in the affected area and sometimes by facial asymmetry.
Babies’ heads are soft to facilitate passage through the birth canal and to accommodate the incredible wave of brain growth that occurs in the first 18 months of life. When babies are too long in the back or with their heads resting on a hard, rigid surface such as a car seat, stroller or swing, their heads can be molded and flattened by that contact. Some babies, too, are born with extended neck muscles – a condition medically known as torticollis – that prevents them from being able to move their own heads.
Fortunately, there are many things you as a parent can do at home to treat and prevent flathead syndrome.
Diagnosis of flat head syndrome
Flat head syndrome is one of the many things your pediatrician looks for. But as the primary caregiver of your baby, you are the person who is most alert to changes in your physical appearance, so if you think you are observing the signs of positional plagiocephaly, do not be afraid to bring it to the attention of your pediatrician .
Look at your baby’s head from different angles: from above, from the sides and from the face. In addition to flattening, you may notice a slight and compensatory bulge in the area of the forehead on the affected side and perhaps some atrial asymmetry.
If your baby’s plagiocephaly is severe, your pediatrician may order that X-rays rule out craniosynostosis or premature fusion of cranial sutures, a very rare but much more serious condition that requires surgical intervention.
Treatment of flat head syndrome
The treatment of plagiocephaly at home is very easy and has a very high success rate. All it usually involves is repositioning the baby with enough frequency so that he or she does not spend long amounts of time with the head in the same position.
In order to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that babies should not be allowed to sleep in their stomachs. However, this does not mean that babies can not enjoy the “tummy time” as long as you are close at hand looking for distress symptoms. You can also use wedge pillows to place your baby on your side at night and during the siesta.
If your baby shows a preference for turning his or her head toward the affected side, try placing a colored mobile or toy on the opposite side that will actively activate your baby’s interest to stimulate the active head spin.
Physiotherapy or osteopathy is useful for resolving a narrow neck muscle on one side, torticollis. If you are worried, seek a referral from your GP or pediatrician or find a private pediatric osteopath or physical therapist who can help. Simple and gradually progressive stretches and exercises are easy to do at home and are part of the overall treatment.
If your child has severe plagiocephaly and does not notice any improvement, a custom molded foam hull or headband device will redirect growth allowing the head shape to grow to a natural shape with natural growth and mild reshaping as the head. These devices are under prescription in the UK and many infants are not treated resulting in a permanent deformity.
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