Keeping Your Baby's Head the Perfect Shape

by Maud Meates-Dennis

Plagiocephaly

newborn with perfect head shapePlagiocephaly refers to an asymmetric head shape. The term comes from Greek -- oblique head.

Usually there is flattening of one area of back of the head causing a flat spot on the head. The condition is also referred to as positional plagiocephaly or deformational plagiocephaly. Pediatricians have seen increasing numbers of babies referred to them with plagiocephaly since the 1990's, coinciding with advice for babies to sleep on their backs.

The advice for babies to sleep on their backs is sound and research has shown that it is the safest sleep position for babies with the lowest risk of sudden infant death syndrome (crib or cot death syndrome) associated with it. Always put your baby to sleep on his/her back.

Babies don't get plagiocephaly from being put on their backs to sleep but from spending extended periods lying on their backs, particularly if they always tend to lie looking to one side. This can occur because:

  • There is already a flat spot on the head present at birth and the baby's head then always seems to rest on that flat spot. The baby's head is molded in the uterus before birth and this can lead to one area of the back of the head being slightly flat.
  • There is a tight muscle in the neck (the sternomastoid muscle) -- this is called torticollis. The tightness in the muscle means the baby's head tends to look to one side.
  • All the interesting things for the baby to look at are on one side of the room and so the baby always looks to one side. Nobody likes looking at a blank wall.

Whatever your baby's head shape at birth, the body will naturally reshape it to a symmetric shape if it can. However, the bones of the skull are still relatively soft and malleable for a few months, particularly if your baby was born prematurely, and if the head is always lying on the same spot, things will get worse and the head shap e will become more asymmetric over time. The flat spot on the head needs some space, not pressure, to be able to remold.

There are steps you can take to keep your baby's head shape symmetrical:

  • When you put your baby to sleep on his/her back, alternate the side his/her head lies on. Some mothers put a picture on the side of the crib (cot) and change this from side to side at each sleep time (to remind them which side to put the baby's head to sleep and to give the baby something to look at).

  • When your baby is awake and you can watch him/her, give him/her supervised "tummy time".

  • Do not let your baby spend too long on his/her back if he/she is not sleeping.

  • Do not let your baby spend too long in car seats if he/she is not traveling.

  • When your baby is on his/her back, make sure you alternate where all the interesting things to look at are. You might want to turn the crib (cot) around at each sleep or change the end you put your baby's head to make sure your baby doesn't get in the habit of always looking one way.

  • If your baby was born with a flat spot, make sure he/she doesn't always rest on it. A small bolster under the flat spot so the pressure is taken by the other side of the head can be used. Make sure the bolster is small and not something your baby could suffocate on.

Supervised "tummy time" is very important for babies. Not only does it mean there is no pressure on the head but it develops tone in your baby's trunk muscles which is important for his/her later development. It is important that "tummy time" is supervised and you don't let your baby fall asleep on his/her tummy.

Start putting your baby on his/her tummy early to get him/her used to it. Start by putting your baby on his/her tummy on your chest so he/she can see your face. When you start to put your baby on the floor, get down on the floor with your baby so he/she sees your face. Try to have at least 5-10 minutes of "tummy time" per day.