What Is Flat Head In Babies?
Babies can develop a flattening of their skulls, often referred to as flat head or flat head syndrome. Flat head is basically a change in the shape of a baby’s head from spending too much time in one position (such as on his back).
What Causes Flat Head?
We all know about the soft spots on a baby’s head. This is another name for the fontanelles, which are gaps made up of connective tissue between the bones of the skull.
Babies actually have six fontanelles, the biggest are known as the anterior fontanelle and the posterior fontanelle (1). Babies also have several sutures or seams that separate the five major bones of the skull.
The sutures and fontanelles allow the skull bones to move. This is important during birth so the head can fit more easily through the birth canal.
The structure of the skull also gives a baby’s rapidly growing brain room to expand.
However, because of a baby’s malleable skull, the head can become misshapen or develop a flat spot from consistent pressure to one area.
The incidence of flat head in babies has increased in frequency in recent years due to the Safe To Sleep campaign.
Babies are also more at risk for flat head if they spend a significant amount of time in carrier devices such as infant swings or car seats.
The two main types of flat head are plagiocephaly and brachycephaly.
- A flattening of one side of the back of the baby’s head (asymmetrical deformity).
- Positional plagiocephaly, also called deformational plagiocephaly, is caused by outside factors that can deform the shape of the skull
- Often seen in babies who have torticollis (tightness in the neck muscles which limits the infant’s range of motion) or a preferred head position (for example, if your baby always turns his head to the right)
- Plagiocephaly can also be caused by a condition called craniosynostosis, which is when the sutures close too early, preventing skull growth. This is a separately treated condition and you can find more information about craniosynostosis here.
- Symmetrical flattening on the back of the head
- Usually seen in infants who spend a large amount of time on their backs
Any factor that limits the ability of the infant to naturally reposition his head can lead to flattening. The risk is greatest during the first three to four months of life until the baby develops head control.
The following tips can be used for babies to prevent or decrease the risk of developing flat head.
1. Alternate Your Baby’s Position in The Crib Each Night
Alternating your baby’s position in her crib each night can help prevent flat head.
Change positions each night and at nap time so your baby is lying in the opposite end of the crib (or bassinet) every other time she goes to sleep.
On Tuesday night, put her in the crib with her head toward the right side of the crib. On Wednesday night, have her rotate so her head is down the left end of the crib.
This way if she prefers to look out at the room, she will not be consistently turning her head to the right (or left) side in order to do that.
It’s also important to note that besides being the safest for baby sleep and prevention of SIDS, a flat surface, like a crib or bassinet, is best for preventing flat spots as your baby is able to freely turn her head.
In opposition, when they are in an inclined baby sleeper or swing, their heads are more likely to be staying in one position, which can contribute to the development of flat spots.
2. Switch Sides When Feeding Your Baby
To help prevent flat head, you should always switch sides when feeding your baby.
This is easy for breastfeeding moms who have to alternate which breast they are using each time. Moms (and dads!) who bottle-feed, whether pumped milk or formula, should also pay attention to which side they last fed baby on and alternate each time.
For the first feed, cradle baby in your right arm while holding the bottle in your left and for the next feed, hold the baby in your left arm while giving her the bottle using your right hand.
If you’re like me and have trouble remembering which side you fed your baby on last, you could try switching sides each time you stop feeding to burp your baby.
3. Rotate Your Baby’s Position on the Changing Table
Each time you change your baby’s diaper, rotate how you position him. When you place him on the changing table, put his head at the end of the table where his feet were last time.
Therefore, if he had to look toward the left to see you and the room during the first diaper change, he will have to look toward the right during the next diaper change.
You can make your own black and white images to hang on the wall over the changing table. This gives your baby something to look at that also stimulates vision development!
For more information on DIY black and white images and newborn vision development, read: What Can My Newborn Baby See?
4. Increase Tummy Time
Tummy time is key for reducing a baby’s risk for developing positional skull deformities. Lying on his stomach gives a baby a chance to relieve any pressure on his head that happens when lying down or in an infant seat.
Furthermore, placing your baby in the prone position (on his stomach) is an important part of helping him develop neck muscle strength. This assists babies in developing the skills to master motor milestones such as rolling over, sitting, and crawling.
Tummy time should always be done while your baby is awake and being watched by an adult.
Place toys for your baby to look at and reach toward on both sides of him. Ideally, place toys or interesting objects in an arc around your baby – to the right side, in front of him, to the left side, so he is rotating his head in all directions to look at the toys.
To help prevent flat head in babies, avoid putting your baby in car seats, other infant carriers, or baby swings for extended periods of time.
One way to do this is to babywear whenever you can.
Babywearing can not only promote mother-infant bonding but it keeps your baby off the back of their head and still allows you to have both hands free to multitask!
Preventing Flat Head: Final Thoughts
It’s common knowledge now that babies should be put on their backs to sleep, which helps reduce the risk of SIDS. Since infants spend a large amount of time sleeping, they are spending a lot of time on their backs.
To prevent flat head, it’s best to keep your baby off the back of his head as much as possible during waking hours. Switching positions often, babywearing, and tummy times are all important steps in preventing flat spots from developing.
I hope you found these simple tips helpful! If you found any of this advice valuable, let me know in the comments below and spread the love by sharing this post!
Updated 5/22/20. Originally published: 2/15/20.