Flat head is an increasingly common syndrome among babies. Almost 25% of babies will develop some form of flatness during their first few months of life. Medically known as plagiocephaly or brachycephaly depending on the position of the flat spot, flat head syndrome is more often than not totally benign and clears up on its own. When you first notice the flatness on your baby’s head however, it’s hard to stop your heart from sinking and your thoughts from jumping to the worst possible conclusions.
How to detect a flat head?
You will typically hardly notice any flatness on your baby’s head for weeks after it starts developing. If you want to catch it early, stay on the lookout during your baby’s bath, when their hair is wet. Shampooing and massaging your baby’s head is the perfect moment to feel for any flatness. I first noticed my baby’s flat head doing precisely that at around 3 months and a half. With a bit more observation, I could have noticed it a couple of weeks earlier. The earlier you do notice, the more effective your mitigation measures will be. So every week counts! If in doubt, get someone to take a photo of your baby’s head when her hair is wet from several angles and take a look at it calmly.
What are the details to look out for?
The flat spot can either be directly on the back of your baby’s head, or on one side of it and it’s caused by the baby spending too much time on that particular spot. In rare cases, there might be a medical reason for that such as neck stiffness preventing them from turninf their head easily. If your baby is able to turn their head in both directions, you can eliminate this hypothesis.
What to do about it?
- Do NOT worry! While a flat spot can look alarming, it has no negative impact on your baby’s developing brain and there’s no immediate consequence to your baby’s health. And no, it does not make you a failed parent!
- Keep your baby sleeping on their back until they can roll over by themselves. It is the safest way for your baby to sleep, even at the expense of a flat head!
- Switch your baby’s position in their cot: your baby will usually be inclined to look in a certain direction when in their cot, typically towards the source of light or stimulation. You can vary the sources of stimulation, but I’ve found it much eaiser to simply vary the direction in which I lay my baby in their cot. That is, if the bed is along a wall on one side and they typically have the wall to their left and the sources of stimulation to their right, pivot your baby so that the wall is now to their right. As soon as they wake up, or before they fall asleep, they will tend to turn their head away from the wall and towards the stimulation, reducing pressure from the flat spot for significant periods of time.
- Switch your baby’s position on their changing table and on their play mat. Similarly to switching their position in their cot, this will reduce pressure on the flat spot.
- After your baby falls asleep, gently turn their head in the opposite direction of the flat spot. Note that this can be done as prevention as well, alternating sides every night.
- Carry your baby when you can: in those first few weeks, your baby is still quite light and their need to be comforted is ever-present. Obviosuly you cannot carry your baby all the time, but if they fall asleep on your shoulder for a daytime nap, there’s a lot to be gained by keeping them close to you, provided you are alert and awake of course. In addition to avoiding flat head, newborns that are carried more often tend to be calmer. Don’t worry, they won’t get spoilt! Invest in a baby sling and get used to it early on. You will be carrying your baby a lot anyway, so might as well embrace it and learn to be productive while doing it!
- Avoid locking your baby down in a single position for extended periods of time: be it a swing, rocking chair, pram or car seat, any holder which restricts your baby’s movement and requires tying them down (seatbelt), is to be used in moderation. Try not to exceed a couple of hours a day of restricted positions during the first few weeks.
- Tummy time: I cannot stress enough the importance of tummy time, since the very early days of your baby’s life. They will hate it. They might scream. You will hate hearing them scream. But it’s the only way for them to build up their neck muscles allowing them to control their head and eventually to roll over and reduce pressure on their head. I started frequent tummy time at 2 months and this delay played a role in my baby developing a flat head.
When will I notice improvement?
Your baby’s head will grow very quickly and will correct itself with time. Do not expect overnight improvement and do not fall for products that promise as much. Be rigorous in changing your baby’s position and in integrating tummy time in their routine and results will follow. When your baby starts spending more time on their tummy and begins rolling over, around a month later, there will be noticeable improvement. For me that was at around 6 months.