what is flat head syndrome

Flat Head Syndrome FAQs

What is Flat Head Syndrome?
Flat Head Syndrome is the name given to the condition when part of a baby’s head becomes flattened due to continued pressure on one spot. The most common forms of Flat Head Syndrome are:

  • Plagiocephaly – This is a flattening on one particular side of a baby’s head. Its most common form is ‘Positional Plagiocephaly’, this is where a baby develops a flat area due to continued pressure on one side of their head. Babies are most vulnerable because their skull is soft and pliable when they’re born.
  • Brachycephaly – This refers to the condition where a baby’s head is disproportionately wide compared to its depth. It can happen when babies lie for long periods on their backs. This causes the whole of the back of their head to flatten.

What causes Flat Head Syndrome?
Your baby’s skull is made up of a number plates, which strengthen and fuse together as a child develops and gets older. A young baby’s skull is still soft enough to be moulded and can change shape if there’s constant pressure on a particular area of their head, therefore the skull may mould into a different shape as the plates meet during growth. There are several factors that may result in your child developing Flat Head Syndrome.

Plagiocephaly and Brachycephaly are often caused by a baby sleeping on their back every night. Should the back or one side of the baby’s head be laid against a firm mattress, the soft bone of their skull can become flattened resulting in a form of Flat Head Syndrome. However, don’t change your baby’s sleeping position from lying on their back at night, the NHS suggests that laying a baby on their back at night will help minimise the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Instead, see some of our prevention techniques outlined in the next question.

Deformities can also occur before your baby is born, this is called positional moulding. The re-moulding of the skull may occur in the uterus due to restricted space in the womb. This frequently occurs in multiple births (i.e. twins or triplets).

It can be said that premature babies may have a deformed skull as they have to pass through the birth canal when their skulls haven’t fully developed, the skull strengthens during the last weeks of pregnancy meaning premature infants may miss these final steps of development and their skulls are more likely to become misshapen.

Some new-borns may have or develop tight muscles in their neck, which prevent them from turning their head in a particular way, this is known as Torticollis which means “twisted neck” in Latin. A true Torticollis is the result of a small knot of tangled fibres in one of the side neck muscles, the sterno-cleido mastoid muscle (SCM).

Can you prevent Flat Head Syndrome?
There are some ways you can reduce the chance of your baby developing Flat Head Syndrome. Try alternating your baby’s head position each time they sleep. You should always place a baby on their back to sleep to minimise the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), But when you put them down you should take note of which way their head is turned and then next time turn it to face the opposite way. A young baby spends a lot of time asleep and if they are always lying on the same spot their head will not grow symmetrically.

Give your baby tummy time when they’re awake. It’s important to minimise the time your baby spends on its back when they are awake. This means cuddling them or carrying them in upright positions, using a baby carrier and giving them plenty of supervised tummy time. Tummy time will help develop your baby’s neck, shoulder, arm and back muscles. It will also help reduce the chance of your baby developing a flat spot as it gets them off the back of their head. Try to avoid prolonged use of rockers, swings, prams and car seats.

Craniosynostosis is the premature fusion of one or more of the joints (sutures) between the bone plates that make up a baby’s skull. These sutures are normally flexible to allow both the natural birth process and remain open during growth to allow the brain to grow and develop naturally within the skull casing. Over time as brain growth completes, the sutures fuse naturally to form a protective bone casing around the brain. In the case of a synostosis, one or more of these sutures fuses together prematurely, causing the head to develop a form of Flat Head Syndrome therefore, this form of Flat Head Syndrome can’t be prevented.

Are some babies more at risk than others?
This condition shows up most often in babies who:

  • Are born prematurely or are a twin or a triplet.
  • Have had an assisted birth (forceps or ventouse).
  • Have limited ability to turn their head or torticollis.