From cradling your baby's head or even someone else's baby, you might already know how soft their skulls are. Flat head syndrome can develop from prolonged pressure on parts of the skull during this growth period which can result in slight deformity to the head. By following a few simple day-to-day techniques, you should be able to prevent flat head syndrome and promote normal development

What is flat head syndrome?

Flat head syndrome, or positional plagiocephaly, describes the flattened spots on a baby's head due to pressure being applied on those areas for prolonged periods of time. Newborn babies are susceptible to this phenomenon since their skulls are so soft and are growing and maturing at a rapid rate.

How does flat head syndrome develop?

Sometimes, due to the pressure of birth and position within the womb, a baby can be born with flat head syndrome. But most cases occur due to postnatal activity.

Flat head syndrome to the back of the head is usually caused by baby lying on their back for prolonged periods of time. And since babies usually have a preference for which side they turn their heads during sleep, it is also possible to develop it on one side of their head.

What are the risk factors?

Some of the risk factors are unpreventable, while others will be avoidable with a few day-to-day adjustments. The risk factors for flat head syndrome include:
  • First born babies
  • Male babies
  • Babies who have had a difficult delivery
  • Constantly being fed on the same side
  • Multiple births
  • Premature birth
  • A lack of tummy time during the day
  • Spending the majority of the day on their back
  • Slow motor development.

How can flat head syndrome be prevented?

There are a few key ways you can help prevent flat head syndrome. Most of these concern repositioning your baby's head often from birth in the lead up to 4 months of age, when they develop control of their head and neck muscles. Remember, baby must always be put to sleep on their back to reduce the risk of SIDS.
  • Monitor your baby's preferred head position during sleep. Try repositioning to relieve pressure on that same spot
  • Alternate between ends of the cot for sleep. Baby is likely to be engaged by the different location of objects in the room and move their head around. An overhead mobile or a positional change for the cot will have the same effect
  • During waking hours, minimise the time baby is stationary. Use a baby carrier or a sling, or lift them out of the pram and rest them face down on your shoulder
  • Make sure to alternate holding positions during feeding time between left and right arm
  • Increase times when baby is upright, such as when being held or burped
  • Increase tummy times during the day and times when baby is on their side. Make sure baby is awake, able to breathe and being observed by an adult. A sleeping baby should be put on their back immediately

Are there any lasting effects?

In very few cases, flat head syndrome can cause further problems. While there is no evidence that flat head syndrome affects brain development, it can cause difficulty with facial and jaw development, along with cranial deformity.

If development seems to have slowed in your baby and improvement of neck and head movement hasn't shown after 4 months, it's important to follow up with a doctor or child health nurse so that appropriate physiotherapy can be arranged.

It is estimated that around 10-30% of babies will develop flat head syndrome to some extent. However, through using the above methods the issue can usually be prevented, or will fully rectify itself after babies develop better motor control of their head and neck muscles. By adopting a few simple day-to-day measures, you can help facilitate your baby's development of these muscles and further prevent flat head syndrome.

*The above should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of trained medical professionals.