What is Flat Head Syndrome?
Flat head syndrome is the umbrella term for a flat head condition that can appear in babies and infants. The deformity may be present at birth or can become apparent during the first few months of an infant’s life.
The following are the medical terms that describe the two different types of flat head syndrome:
• Plagiocephaly – a deformation of the head marked by an oblique slant to the skull surface, which is usually at the side of the head. The most common type is called positional plagiocephaly.
• Brachycephaly – when a baby has a wider than normal head with a flattening across the back of the skull. It is usually a combination of brachycephaly and plagiocephaly, presenting as a wide, asymmetric head shape.
What Causes Flat Head Syndrome?
Babies can be at risk of flat head syndrome due to their skull remaining soft and pliable in the earliest stages of their life. This pliability is because of the several plates of bone that fuse together, being initially loose. They gradually join as a baby gets older.
Deformities can also occur before your baby is born, which is called positional moulding. The re-moulding of the skull may occur in the uterus because of restricted space in the womb. This frequently occurs in multiple births (I.e. twins or triplets) or those that require assisted delivery (intrapartum moulding). Deformities can also occur during birth, as the baby travels through the birth canal. Passage through the birth canal can cause temporary cranial deformity and it’s common for the baby to have an oddly-shaped head during the first few days or weeks after birth.
Most of such deformities improve naturally during the early months of an infant’s life, without any need for treatment. The exception occurs when the infant is consistently positioned in a way that exerts pressure on one particular area of the head, turning a minor plagiocephalic deformity into a potential long-term problem that requires treatment.
Incidence of Flat Head Syndrome
The incidence of flat head syndrome is higher in infants that are born prematurely as their heads tend to be softer and more prone to moulding.
Paediatricians have reported an increase in the number of children with cranial deformities in recent years, particularly unilateral flattening of the occipital bone at the back of the head. This is generally attributed to the back to sleep campaign, which has dramatically reduced the incidence of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) but which without adequate care can leave babies with permanent head shape deformities.
Parents should always place their babies on their backs when sleeping. During the day when an infant is awake and their parent is with them, babies should spend at least half of their waking hours without pressure on the back of the skull, allowing it to reshape naturally. If no improvement is seen by the age of five months, treatment should be considered.