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What you need to know about flat head syndrome

Contributing writer

What you need to know about flat head syndrome

Because the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents put infants to sleep on their backs to prevent sudden infant death syndrome, the baby's bones can sometimes be molded and flattened over time, causing a child's head to become flat. (Thinkstock)
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You may have seen an infant wearing a tiny helmet resembling those worn by your favorite football star, but these devices offer more than head protection from a sudden impact. They are a cure for flat head syndrome.

Flat head syndrome is a condition in which flat spots develop on the back or side of a baby’s head, usually by the time the infant is 4 months old. According to the journal Pediatrics, roughly 47 percent of babies are diagnosed with this condition.

Because the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents put infants to sleep on their backs to prevent sudden infant death syndrome, the baby’s bones can sometimes be molded and flattened over time, causing a child’s head to become flat.

Constant back sleeping is not the only cause of flat head syndrome. Twins and triplets can have flat spots from their cramped positions in the womb. Also, babies born prematurely have softer skull bones, making them more likely to develop the condition.

Typically, a pediatrician can diagnose the condition by looking at the child’s head, but you might notice other signs too. For instance, your baby’s head may not be symmetrically rounded or it might have hair loss on one side of the head, or your baby’s ear on the flattened side of the head may extend forward. 

The good news is that this condition is treatable. Infant helmets are prescribed by doctors for more advanced cases of flat head syndrome. If a baby has a milder form of the condition, or if parents want to take preventive action, follow these treatment tips:

Give babies a lot of tummy time. Until an infant can roll over independently, some play time while laying stomach-side down is recommended, with parent supervision. This helps strengthen many muscles in the baby’s upper body, such as the neck and shoulders.

Change sleeping positions. Parents of younger infants can place the baby’s head a certain way when setting them in the crib – tilted toward the right one day, then facing left the next – to decrease the chances of additional flat spots.

Keep babies upright. Babies don’t just rest on their backs in cribs, but also in strollers, car seats and baby swings. Holding a baby in your arms takes some of the pressure off the head and gives less time for a flat spot to form. 

Follow your doctor’s orders. Your pediatrician may give you and your partner stretches or physical therapy exercises to do with your baby at home. 

Babies with flat head syndrome can also end up with tight neck muscles. If those muscles aren’t loosened up, it’s harder for the baby to move his or her head, and flat spots can worsen.

Treat this syndrome early

Flat head syndrome doesn’t cause brain damage, nor does it mean the baby has stunted brain growth or delayed-development issues.  If you think that your child might have a flat head, set up a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible. 

Treatment should begin between the ages of 4 and 12 months, while the bones of the skull are still soft. 

Steve Kwon, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group in Fullerton, part of the St. Joseph Hoag Health network of care.

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