When your infant is seen for a “well child exam,” checking growth and development are the top concerns.

Additionally, careful attention should be paid to your young child’s head shape. We are now in the middle of an “epidemic” of head flattening, medically known as “positional plagiocephaly,” meaning a change in head shape due to positioning of the baby. Typically this is flattening of either side of the back of the head or symmetric flattening of the entire back of the head. This is not just a cosmetic concern as significant health issues can result from the altered head shape.

The flattening that can develop is related to a baby’s skull being relatively soft until about age 5-6 months. Babies spend a lot of time on their backs between sleeping (the recommended sleep position is on their back to decrease the risk of SIDS) and while awake until they are old enough to be rolling, sitting up,etc. If the head is turned to one side when sleeping (for example if the baby is turning to look towards a parent), this can result in localized flattening of one side of the back of the head.

With this flattening on one side, it is then harder for the baby to turn their head to the opposite side. Over time the neck muscle on the flatter side can become tighter and shorter, causing the neck to stay in a twisted position (this is called ‘torticollis’). This may affect the shape of the face with jaw asymmetry and other changes. In some cases it can be related to problems with development if left untreated.

It is important to be pro-active to minimize the risk of infant head flattening. Your baby should absolutely sleep on their back, but otherwise should be up and off the back of their head a lot.

“Tummy time” while awake should start right away and not only helps head shape but increases the strength in your baby’s neck, chest and arms. Options for tummy time include having baby lay with their face/chest on your chest or baby laying down over your lap. You can also have baby lay on the floor with a rolled small blanket to prop up their chest only until they are strong enough to push up on their arms.

Begin with 5-10 minutes three times a day with a goal of about 60-90 minutes total a day by age 4 months. Babies often don’t like tummy time at first (it’s a lot of work for your little one) but it gets easier as they get stronger.

If a baby has flattening on one side of the head, the baby can be laid down to sleep alternating their head in opposite ends of their crib or bassinet each night. This means they will have to turn their head the opposite way to continue to look at their parent and can improve head shape.

Parents should alternate which arm they hold the baby in for feeding as well. Upright chairs like the Bumbo for babies not sitting yet are recommended at age 3-4 months. Front packs also help your baby be upright during the day.

If a baby has significant head turning with neck twisting (torticollis), physical therapy is usually started and can be very helpful to restore normal movement of the neck. If by 4-5 months there is significant flattening despite increasing tummy time, etc., a referral may be made for helmet therapy. Wearing a custom soft helmet with a foam liner that is adjusted over time, the head shape becomes more rounded.

Helmet therapy is most effective between 4 and 12 months of age, and babies usually accept the wearing of the helmet very well. Most babies are treated with helmet therapy for 1-4 months.

Having some degree of head flattening even with lots of tummy time and upright positioning is fairly common and is not a problem if it is mild. Talk with your health care provider if you have concerns about your baby’s head shape; they can help determine if any specific treatment is needed.

Dr. Elise Herman is a pediatrician at Ellensburg Pediatrics/KVH.

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