4 Ways to Prevent Flat Head Syndrome in Babies

Sleeping in one position too long can cause condition

Mother holds baby's head checking for signs of flat head syndrome.

Sleeping in one position too long can cause condition

Flat head syndrome is a condition in which part of a baby’s head develops a flat spot, either on one side or the back of the head, during the first months of life.

The syndrome — also called positional plagiocephaly — usually happens when a baby sleeps in the same position most of the time or because of problems with the neck muscles.

Though it might be concerning, flat head syndrome is quite common. About 1 in 8 healthy infants under the age of 1 experience this condition, with the majority having only a mild form.

Flat head syndrome does not affect brain development or intelligence. The condition is easily treated and prevented with a few simple practices.

“Your pediatrician will check your baby’s head shape at each wellness visit,” says Tina Chu, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center San Marcos.

Back sleep position is safest

All babies need to be placed on their backs to sleep to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Back sleeping is the safest position even with the possibility of flat head syndrome.

“Make sure your baby is sleeping on his or her back as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics,” Dr. Chu says.

Types of flat head

There are two types of flat head syndrome. In one, the back of the head is flat on one side and may cause uneven face and ears. In the other, the back of the head is flat and appears wider than normal.

Four ways to prevent or correct flat head syndrome

There are several other things you can do to help correct or prevent flat head syndrome, including:

1.   Change your baby’s head position during sleep

Alternating the baby’s head position while laying them down can help prevent flat head syndrome by reducing prolonged pressure on one side of the head.

“It’s important to make sure babies don’t spend too much time on their back with their head in any one position,” Dr. Chu says.” You can gently reposition your baby’s head during naptime and bedtime, from right to left, left to right.”

2.   Encourage your baby to actively turn his or her head

Position your baby so that the more rounded side of the head is placed against the mattress. You can also change the position of the crib and place your infant so that the baby will look away from the flattened side of the head to see people or interesting objects in the room.

3.   Practice tummy time

When awake, babies should spend supervised time on their tummies for at least 30 to 60 minutes a day, broken up into short segments. Routine awake tummy time can help a baby develop strong neck and shoulder muscles and help prevent flat spots. The best time to do this is following a diaper change or when the baby wakes up from a nap.

4.   Limit time in certain positions

Reduce the time your baby spends with the head against a flat surface when awake, including car seats, swings, strollers and bouncy seats. These items put added pressure on the back of the baby’s head.

What is torticollis in infants?

Many babies with flat head syndrome also have torticollis, tight neck muscles on one side of their neck that makes turning their heads difficult. Since it’s hard to turn their heads, these babies keep their heads in the same position when lying down, causing flattening.

Torticollis is present in about 20% of babies with positional flattening.

Torticollis is treated with neck stretches that should be performed with each diaper change. “Your pediatrician can teach you some specific exercises involving stretching techniques that are gradual and progressive,” Dr. Chu says.

Most moves will involve stretching your child’s neck to the side opposite the tilt so that in time the neck muscles will get longer, and the neck will straighten out.

Does flat head go away on its own?

Flat head syndrome usually happens in the first four to 12 weeks of life when babies are not able to sit up or move on their own. The condition improves with time and natural growth. As they grow, they begin to change position themselves during sleep.

When to see your pediatrician

If skull deformities are more significant and not improving, your pediatrician may refer your baby for helmet therapy, which is a treatment that’s prescribed to help mold the baby’s skull into shape.

Do not purchase or use any helmets without seeing your pediatrician.

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