What is Flathead Syndrome?
Technically known as Deformational Plagiocephaly, Flathead Syndrome is where the baby's head has an irregular shape caused by external forces. Perhaps the most common risk factor or “external force” is sleep position. As the baby's head flattens, it will naturally rest on that flat area, exacerbating the problem.
What are the Longterm Effects of Flathead Syndrome?
The most common concern among parents, of course, is “Will there be developmental and health problems as my child grows?” Studies show that there is in fact a link between neurological development delays, specifically motor skills, and untreated flathead syndrome.
One study from 2010 comparing neurological development of infants found that 6-month-olds with untreated Flathead Syndrome did show a significant delay, compared to infants in the same age range without head shape deformities. Dr. Speltz, the head of research for this study, recommended that “pediatricians pay close attention to the developmental rate of children with plagiocephaly (1)”
Another undeniable long term complication is not being able to safely wear helmets due to the fact that most helmets are made for “standard” heads, causing issues in both leisure and professional situations. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that head shape deformities can sadly affect psychological wellbeing as a result of prejudice and bullying.
What are the Preventions and Treatments Options for Flathead Syndrome?
If prevention methods are not taken, treatment options can be expensive and difficult to implement. The most common treatment is Helmet Therapy. Averaging $2,000 out-of-pocket costs to parents and not covered by insurance, helmets are only effective for those families that can afford them. Plus, these require weekly appointments for resizing and must be worn by the baby nearly 24 hours a day.
In addition to the cost, appointments, and struggle of your baby needing to wear them constantly, at least one randomized, controlled trial found that helmet therapy was no more effective than no intervention. (3)
Other options parents turn to for a potential solution are Head Positioners or Baby Pillows. These are sold with the intent to cradle the infant's head providing space between the pillow and flat surface, thus removing the pressure. However, these can be very dangerous as the soft material does not allow a baby to breathe if they roll sideways. Plus, the design may cause the baby's head to raise too high and cause additional neck injuries. THESE ARE ADVISED AGAINST BY MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS.
Now, let's talk prevention
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(1) Matthew L. Speltz, Brent R. Collett, Marni Stott-Miller, Jacqueline R. Starr, Carrie Heike, Antigone M. Wolfram-Aduan, Darcy King and Michael L. Cunningham. “Case-Control Study of Neurodevelopment in Deformational Plagiocephaly”. PEDIATRICS Volume 125, Number 3 (2010)
(2) Steinmann, Laura C. “Strictly Clinical.” (2016).
(3) Van Wijk RM, van Vlimmeren La, Groothuis-Oudshoorn CGM, Van der Ploeg CPB, IJzerman MJ, Boere-Boonekamp MM. Helmet therapy in infants with positional skull deformation: randomized controlled trial. BMJ. 2014; 348: g2741.