November 5, 2019

Does Flat Head Syndrome Affect a Baby’s Brain Development?

baby doing tummy time flat head syndromeBy Meg Coleman, Nurse Practitioner

If you’re a new parent, you may feel concerned about your infant developing flat head syndrome, or positional plagiocephaly. So what can you do about it?

Plagiocephaly occurs when a baby’s head develops a flat spot – it can be on either a side or on the back of the head. How can something like this happen?

The skull flattens when a baby’s head stays in one position for long periods of time. A baby may be born with it because of tight space in the uterus, or it could also be caused by a rare muscular condition known as torticollis in which the neck muscles contract, causing the head to twist to one side. It could also simply be prematurity or a baby sleeping on their back too long.

If you’re feeling concerned, know that flat head syndrome improves with time and natural growth, and it does not affect a baby’s brain development. As babies grow, they begin to change position themselves during sleep so their heads do not stay in the same position. Over time and as the skull grows, the flattening will improve, even in severe cases.

Symptoms you may notice if your baby has flat head syndrome include the baby’s head is flatter on one side or the back of the head, there is less hair on that part of the head, or the baby’s face or ears are not symmetrical.

Your child’s healthcare provider will check your child’s head for features such as bony ridges, flat areas, uneven forehead and asymmetry of the face and/or ears. To help manage positional plagiocephaly, try changing your baby’s sleep position by turning his or her head to the opposite side, practicing tummy time, varying positions in the crib and holding your baby more often.

Treating flat head syndrome depends on the baby’s symptoms, age and general health. Some babies do not need specific treatment since the condition is likely to go away when the baby begins to sit up. If the problem is moderate to severe, your baby may need to wear a special helmet that applies gentle pressure to help reform the head. Helmets are usually made of an outer hard shell with a foam lining and must be prescribed by a licensed healthcare provider with craniofacial experience.

If you’re worried about flat head syndrome, find comfort in knowing your baby is likely to outgrow it as they develop and there are simple steps you can take to help manage the symptoms when it does occur.

Meg Coleman, FNP, PNP, is a nurse practitioner at Mission Children’s Hospital.

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