Flat Head Syndrome – a new risk
Despite the success of the Back to Sleep campaign in dramatically reducing the incidences of SIDS, there has been one unintended negative consequence. In conjunction with the more frequent use of many modern “container” devices such as car seats, swings, and bouncy seats, placing babies on their backs to sleep has led to children spending a large portion of the time in the same position. This in turn has affected the development and shape of infant heads. While rates of SIDS decreased sharply, the incidence of what is commonly known as flat head syndrome has increased dramatically, and affects up to half of all babies who sleep on their backs today.
What is flat head syndrome?
Flat head syndrome in babies is marked by the presence of flat spots on the skull. The flat spots may result from repetitive pressure on one part of the baby’s developing skull. The pressure applied to one area of the skull for significant periods of time may cause visible deformation in the soft cranial bones. Flat head syndrome is a term that encompasses a number of different disorders affecting head shape with multiple different causes, but the most common conditions causing this syndrome are known as positional cephalic disorders. Positional cephalic disorders are caused by the position that a baby’s head is in. This can occur in the womb or during the birthing process, but more commonly it happens in the first few months of life. Depending on the cause and location of the flat areas on the skull, the most common of these conditions are known as plagiocephaly or brachycephaly. Plagiocephaly may occur in conjunction with torticollis, or “wry neck”, a muscular condition where one side of the neck is tight, causing the baby to tilt their head and prefer to look in the same direction.
Many parents today, although they are seeking to provide the best care and safest environment for their children, have not been adequately educated about this very common problem. Often considered a cosmetic issue, flat head syndromes can also potentially cause developmental delays and facial disfiguration in addition to a possibly permanent reshaping of the head. Parents and caregivers need to learn what they can do to prevent these conditions, and treat them if they do occur. As a result of this lack of widespread information, many find out that their children have been affected only after a significant deformity in skull shape becomes visually apparent. Increased awaremenss can help parents to spot the problem early, before the condition becomes more severe.
What are the long term consequences?
Education and patient information campaigns in the future may prove useful in teaching parents about prevention techniques such as repositioning, tummy time, and sling or front-pack carrier use, all of which can help with both prevention and treatment. In the meantime, the medical community is struggling to investigate, interpret, and understand the potential complications of the rise in positional cephalic disorders, and has not yet arrived at a consensus regarding the potential long-term ramifications of these conditions, or the correct prevention and treatment strategies to pursue. This is why it is so important for parents to become educated on their own.
The long term ramifications of flat head syndrome are not well understood based on present research. Some individuals in the medical community and in the insurance industry consider it a cosmetic condition and advocate very conservative, if any, treatment. Unfortunately, as recent studies have confirmed, in some cases this can prove detrimental. Despite the overall lack of consensus regarding treatment strategies and potential severity, some specialists now believe that positional cephalic disorders can negatively affect the emotional health of young children, who may appear very different than their normal peers. Many infants with more severe plagiocephaly have been shown to exhibit motor skill delays and other developmental delays. The presence of flat head syndrome has also been linked to temporomandibular joint disorders, which can be very painful and may require surgical treatment in severe cases.
In short, the long term effects of positional cephalic disorders are still being studied, and some physicians and parents choose to pursue treatment in order to prevent potential long-term consequences and abnormal head shape. In cases where cosmetic skull deformities are mild and there are no underlying major conditions, treatment is usually very effective.
You can find much more information on flat head prevention and treatment on this site.