Torticollis is the name given to a neck condition that can either develop after a baby is born, or it can develop in utero and already be noticeable in newborn babies. It can be caused as a result of genetic makeup or the position of the baby when growing in the womb. If it is present in a newborn baby, it is referred to as congenital torticollis. It used to be known as wryneck, although that term is less commonly used today. It is important to recognize if your baby has this condition, as it does need to be resolved so that it does not lead to developmental issues or problems such as baby flat head syndrome. Torticollis is often a contributing factor in a baby developing positional plagiocephaly.
This article will help you understand if your baby may have torticollis, and give you some suggestions and tips on stretches and exercises to help deal with the condition.
Congenital torticollis is common, as around 1 in every 250 babies are born with this condition, but the reasons for it can vary. Predominantly it develops as a result of the way the baby has lain in the womb, as they are prone to favor one position over another, and some babies can remain in the same position for lengthy periods. This can result in a shortening of the muscles connecting the chest to the neck. It can also be caused genetically, where bones in the top of the spine are malformed or fused, although this is quite rare and more serious. This condition is known as Klippel-Feil Syndrome and the treatment is quite different as other parts of the body are affected as well.
If your newborn has torticollis you may notice a reluctance to move the head and neck in one direction, and even a tilting to one side due to the shortening of muscles. This is something you can see for yourself by moving from one side to the other of your baby and calling to them, as most young babies will move their head towards the sound. Babies with torticollis may be more reluctant to follow you with their heads in one direction. You may also notice the possibility of torticollis because your baby prefers to rest with its head tilted or turned more in one direction that the other, and the tilt or turn is consistently on the same side.
Torticollis can be an contributing factor in the development of flat head syndrome in a baby, which is a condition where one side of their head becomes flattened as it spends time resting against the surface of the crib, car seat, swing, or bouncy seat. The head is very malleable in babies and long periods of time spent lying in one position can cause a flattening of the area that’s frequently resting against the surface. Moving the baby’s position frequently can reduce this, however, if your baby has torticollis then this can be quite difficult. It may seem that no matter how you position your baby, he or she always reverts to the same position. This is where additional treatment of the underlying condition becomes very important.
Treatment of Torticollis
If you suspect your baby has torticollis caused by shortened neck muscles, do not worry, as there are simple and straightforward treatments for the condition. The first thing you should do is to get a proper medical diagnosis and this will determine the best treatment plan for your baby. Physical therapy is often recommended. Most babies respond very well to stretching of the muscles. This results in the muscles being lengthened to bring both sides of the neck into alignment.
Of course this is not something you can just undertake on your own, you need to follow the guidance of your pediatrician or a qualified physiotherapist, otherwise you could cause even more damage, or worse still, make the damage permanent. It is critical that the condition is diagnosed correctly and that you understand exactly where your infant’s neck is tightened, and follow a therapy program designed for your baby’s specific needs.
In addition to a stretching program, you may also be required to massage your baby’s neck and shoulder area. You will undoubtedly be asked to give your baby more tummy time to minimize the potential for flat head syndrome. There are other treatments too, but these will generally be the initial recommendations.
Here is a link to some of the types of stretches you may be advised to perform:
Make Treatment Enjoyable for Your Baby
Your doctor or physical therapist can give you proper direction on the appropriate physical therapy exercises, but it’s important to keep it fun and turn it into a pleasant experience for your baby. When you are first attempting the exercises, your baby may protest, as it is difficult for them. Think about how uncomfortable it is for you to stretch when you have a stiff neck! The important thing is to start slowly, and do very short sessions at first. If your baby starts to fuss or cry, move on to another activity or try a different stretch or exercise. Gradually you will be able to do the stretches for longer periods. The important thing is consistency, be sure to do the exercises daily and to do the number of repetitions recommended by your healthcare practitioner. You can also use your baby’s favorite toys to make exercise time more fun.
Other Tips to Help Treat Torticollis
It is important to continue to encourage your baby to move their neck in all directions, and strengthen the weak neck muscles. This can be done in other ways, in addition to the exercise regimen prescribed by your doctor or therapist. Think about what positions your baby is in all throughout the day. Treatment will be even more effective if it is integrated into your daily routine.
Carrying Your Baby
Be sure to alternate the direction that you hold your baby so they have an opportunity to look in different directions. You will probably find that you tend to carry the baby on one particular shoulder more often, and the infant will frequently then always be looking in the preferred direction. Alternate the shoulder you carry your baby on, and encourage the baby to turn his or her head in the stiff direction to see interesting things around your house or when you are out in the neighborhood.
You can also carry your baby on its side facing away from you, with his or her head resting on your forearm, and the weight of the baby’s body will help to stretch out the neck muscles on the side resting against your arm.
Feeding and Holding Your Baby
Also alternate the direction and position you are holding the baby during feedings. Even breastfed babies often tend to prefer one side and revert to the same position. You may find that putting a pillow such as a boppy under the baby’s head as they are laying on their side can help to stretch the stiff side of the neck.
When Your Baby is Sleeping
Your baby will tend to look out towards the room or something they find interesting, so be sure to alternate the direction that he or she is sleeping in the crib. You will want to have the infant rest more frequently in a way that they are likely to look towards the stiff side.
When Your Baby is Resting
If you have your baby in a car seat, bouncy seat, swing, or carrier, be sure to use pillows or special infant positioners (even a rolled up towel or blanket will sometimes work) to make sure that your baby is holding their head and neck straight and not favoring one side. Just be sure to only use pillows when your baby is awake and supervised, or at the direction of your medical professional.
When you or your caretaker are playing with your baby, always be conscious of your baby’s condition and encourage them to stretch the neck and look in the stiff direction. Use toys and other interesting objects to encourage your baby to turn the head. Position mobiles and toys in the crib so that the infant will turn towards them in the more difficult direction, and therefore stretch at the same time.
If your baby is diagnosed with torticollis, it is very important that you take the condition seriously and follow all the recommendations of your health care provider to avoid problems with your infant’s development and keep your baby from developing flat head syndrome. However, it is important to know that this condition can be treated very successfully with stretching and physical therapy, which is non-invasive and low risk. As long as your baby receives the proper diagnosis and treatment, there should be no lasting consequences for your baby.