When her son was 3 months old, Sandra Quinn, a mother of two from Long Island, New York, remembers the first time that she realized that her little boy’s head looked misshapen.

“He was lying on his stomach on his playmat during tummy time, and I noticed that the back of his head looked flat. Since at that age, he was still sleeping on his back, I didn’t think much of it.”

Soon, it became very obvious for both Sandra and her husband, and they grew worried. “Max had no hair back then, and we couldn’t help but notice it every time we looked at him.”

At her son’s monthly checkup the following week, Sandra talked about her fears with her son’s doctor, who confirmed her concerns with a diagnosis of plagiocephaly, better known as flat head syndrome.

What Causes Flat Head Syndrome?

Flat head syndrome is a condition that causes a baby’s head to become misshapen, usually resulting with the flattening of one side of the back of their head.

Stanford Children’s Health explains that a newborn’s skull is made up of plates that can move. Between the plates are spaces that help their skull to become wide for brain growth. And, as your baby is cramped up tightly in your tummy for over nine months, your little one’s skull may experience pressure and develop a flat spot as it rests against your pelvic area.

Parents and healthcare providers need to be aware that back positioning of the infant may result in the flattening of the head.
Robert E. Lyle, M.D.

“Parents and healthcare providers need to be aware that supine (back) positioning of the infant may result in the flattening of the head,” explains Robert E. Lyle, M.D., professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Placing your little one in an infant car seat, swing, or stroller can also play a role with this condition.

What Are the Treatment Options?

Very mild cases of flat head syndrome may correct themselves with preventive steps and repositioning exercises. Doctors also encourage parents to provide lots of tummy time for their baby to help strengthen their neck muscles.

Severe cases may require corrective surgery or the use of helmet therapy.

Why the Sudden Increase in Flat Head Syndrome?

Prompted by numerous reports of babies across the country succumbing to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) as well as a strong desire to better inform parents about the potential dangers of placing newborns on their stomachs to sleep, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a statement in 1992 recommending that healthy infants be placed on their backs to sleep.

Two years later, the AAP launched the nationwide Back to Sleep campaign to further promote supine (back) sleep positioning for newborns.

The campaign has resulted in a huge decrease in SIDS nationwide, as rates have gone down by an estimated 40 percent in the last decade. But there has been a sharp increase in the diagnosis of positional head deformities in American newborns.

A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine Journal reported an increase in the number of cases of infants diagnosed with flat head syndrome since the start of the AAP Back to Sleep campaign.

The researchers reviewed data from the Texas Birth Defects Registry and identified cases of flat head syndrome reported between 1999 and 2007. During that time, the number of cases rose from 3 to 28.8 per 10,000 live births — a more than ninefold increase.

The total number of reported cases during the study period was 6,295, and the average number of cases rose by more than 21 percent per year.

The Takeaway

Pediatric experts are quick to say that these findings should in no way make parents stop protecting their babies from SIDS by placing them to sleep on their backs. Parents should always consult with their pediatrician who can provide them with suggestions with respect to sleep positioning and crib location.