Flat head syndrome - what it is and how to prevent it
As a parent, especially a new parent, it's all too easy to spiral into worry at the mention that your baby has a "syndrome", so I spoke to leading plastic surgeon Mr Matthew Pywell about why flat head syndrome occurs, how to prevent it happening or how to help your baby's head to return to normal.
The first and most important to thing to say is that flat head syndrome, or positional plagiocephaly, is very common in newborns and young babies, and in the vast majority of cases is nothing to panic about.
The reality is that most babies will have some mis-shaping of their head at birth due to the combination of still having a soft skull and the pressure put on their head as they travel down the birth canal. Then once they are safely in the world we put them to sleep on their backs, on firm matresses, which can result in pressure being continually put on one side of a baby's skull, thus flattening it. It's worth saying that the Back to Sleep initiative has saved countless lives and is unquestionably the safest way for your baby to sleep to reduce the risk of SIDS, but the incidence of flat head syndrome has increased as a result.
The primary time for flat head syndrome to occur is between birth and 6 months, as by around 6 months your baby will start to roll over and no longer always be lying on their back.
For the majority of babies born with a mishapen head, it fixes itself within the first few weeks of their life, but some babies will need some help and encouragement to move their head off the flat part to return to a rounded head shape.
Mr Pywell explained exactly why the encouragement of head and neck movement is so important, by using the analogy of a mixing bowl. Mixing bowls are rounded but importantly they have a flat bottom to keep them from wobbling around. If you imagine that a baby skull should be like a round ball, however if they have flat head syndrome it will be more like a mixing bowl with one flatter side, and your baby will prefer to lay on the flat side. The challenge becomes that if the flatness is quite pronounced then it can be very hard for your baby to move themselves onto the curved part of their skull, as their head will want to return to the flat part where it can stay still comfortably without any effort.
So what can you do as a parent to encourage good movement of your baby's head from birth to avoid flat head syndrome, or help your baby's skull return to it's natural curve if they do have a flattening on one side?
The key things to do are observe, distract, tummy time and also give them a helping hand:
Observe your baby to see where they naturally look. Do they have a preference to turn their head to the left? If so think about positioning them in the room so that the action (people, siblings, general stimulus) is to their right, to encourage them to have a full range of head movement.
The NHS also recommend sensory distractions, that is putting something that is visually interesting to them in their eye line but alternating where the stimulus is coming from to encourage a range of head positions.
Tummy time from birth is hugely important to give your baby time off their back. It can be practised on the floor on a play mat or even on you whilst you recline - whatever they prefer just try and make it a regular part of your day.
The final thing is to help them by manually positioning their head from one side to another throughout the day, this is especially helpful if they do have flat head syndrome and struggle to move their head off the flat part by themselves.
I hope this has been helpful, and if your little one does have a flattening of their skull please remember it's purely a cosmetic thing, as there is no evidence of flat head syndrome having a negative impact on brain development. Keep in touch with your GP or Health Visitor and try out the above suggestions of observation, visual stimluation and manual positioning too.
To view our range of sensory products, which are perfect for sensory distraction and visual stimulation click here.