The Ins and Outs of Flat Head Syndrome in Babies
by Whitney VanderVeen, PT, DPT, ATC

What is Flat Head Syndrome?

flat head syndrome

Flat head syndrome develops when an infant’s soft skull becomes flattened in one area:

  • Plagiocephaly – pronounced play-jee-oh-sef-uh-lee
    • Flattening at one side of the head
  • Brachycephaly – pronounced brak-ee-sef-uh-lee
    • Flattening across the back of the head
    • Head is wider than normal
  • Scaphocephaly – pronounced skaf-oh-sef-uh-lee 
    • Long and thin head shape when looking down from above

*46% of infants will have some degree of flattening on the skull by the time they’re 4 months of age!

What can cause flat head syndrome?

In 1994, the American Academy of Pediatrics launched the Back to Sleep campaign to raise awareness about safe sleeping for infants and the danger of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).  This campaign has extended to today as the safest way for an infant to sleep is flat on their back.  In addition to the reasons listed below, infants can develop a flat spot either on the back or side of their head from sleeping on their back with the same area of their head in contact with the surface for hopefully hours at a time.  The other main causes include:

  • Positioning and available space in the womb
  • Muscular Torticollis – Does your baby have a preference for which direction they turn their head towards?
  • Too much time in car seats and swings
  • Premature birth and time in the NICU

What can you do prevent/improve flat head syndrome?

  • Reposition your infant’s head while they sleep
  • Frequently change your infant’s positioning throughout the day– feeding, changing, holding, etc.
  • Tummy Time! Tummy time relieves pressure from an infant’s head AND strengthens their neck muscles to improve independence with head control
  • Limit the amount of time your infant spends in carriers, swings, bouncy seats, etc.
  • Early intervention is key for treatment – 0-4 months is ideal

Because your infant’s head might naturally rest on the already flattened area – flat head syndrome may worsen if untreated.  In other cases, flat head syndrome can correct itself.  Overall, it is difficult for parents to predict which infants do and do not need treatment for flat head syndrome so consult with your pediatrician or a pediatric physical or occupational therapist.  Your specialist may be able to give you things to work on at home that are specific to your infant’s needs. 

Reach out to Whitney at Kinetic Edge Physical Therapy at (641) 676-3535 for additional information, or to schedule an appointment