Skip to main content

Flat Head Syndrome in Babies: Why Are We Seeing More of It?

Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner who believes in the power of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to prevent and fight illness.

Why Does My Baby Have a Flat Head?

Why Does My Baby Have a Flat Head?

Don’t be surprised if you see more babies with flat heads these days. But why? Flat-head syndrome is becoming more common. It's when babies develop a flat spot on the back of their heads caused by lying in the same position for extended periods of time. But why is there more of it these days?

Why Does My Baby Have a Flat Head?

A few decades ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics began urging parents to position infants on their backs to sleep in order to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Experts believe back sleeping plays a role in flat heads.

Pediatricians Recommend Positioning Babies on Their Backs

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is the leading cause of death in infants one month to a year old. SIDS is defined as the sudden, unexpected death of an infant under one year of age that cannot be explained by other causes.

SIDS is also known as crib death because it often occurs when an infant is sleeping in a crib. Infants who sleep on their stomachs are at greater risk for SIDS for unknown reasons.

Although the incidence of SIDS has diminished since babies started sleeping on their backs, flat heads in infants, a condition known as plagiocephaly, has increased.

Plagiocephaly Is On the Rise

Doctors refer to this condition as positional plagiocephaly since it occurs when a baby lies on its back too much, causing flattening of the back of the head. This usually occurs in the crib, but babies can also develop flat heads if they spend too much time in a car seat. Plagiocephaly can also occur while a baby is still in the mother’s womb or after a difficult delivery.

According to a new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, flat heads in babies may not be related to sleep position after all. The authors of this study believe babies with flat heads have always been common, but there was less awareness of this condition in the past. One outpatient hospital in Delaware now sees a flat head shape in as many as one in four babies.

Greater awareness may account for some of the increase, but experts believe that a rise in the number of babies born prematurely partially accounts for the greater number of babies with positional plagiocephaly. Premature infants have a softer skull, which makes it more malleable and easily molded when compressed.

What to Do If Your Baby Has a Flat Head

  • Supervise Tummy Time. Healthcare providers urge families to position babies on their backs during sleep to reduce the risk of SIDS. But they also recommend that parents give babies more closely supervised time on their tummies to relieve some of the constant pressure on the back of their heads.
  • Use a Helmet. There are special helmets for babies to wear to correct flat heads, although these helmets are quite expensive.
  • Reposition Often. Repositioning the head slightly while a baby sleeps but keeping them on their back is helpful, too.

Is a Flat Head Permanent?

Babies with positional plagiocephaly usually don’t grow into children with flat heads. As babies mature, they start to naturally reposition themselves during sleep, which takes some of the pressure off of the back of the head.

In most cases, a baby's flat head corrects itself by age two, and a child's skull takes on a rounder appearance. Some babies with stiff neck muscles may require physical therapy. Rarely, a child will need surgical correction.

Plagiocephaly Usually Resolves on Its Own

Flat head in babies is a condition that usually corrects itself after the first year of life, but it’s a good idea to take pressure off the back of the head as much as possible with supervised tummy time and repositioning—always making sure a baby sleeps on their back when you’re not around. This is important to lower the risk of SIDS. Also, talk to your baby’s physician about any concerns you have about the shape of your baby's skull.

References:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.