Plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome) is the term given when a child has an asymmetry to the shape of their head. The medical terminology around this condition is difficult to navigate, and it can be even more difficult for new parents to understand, as different areas of asymmetry are also given specific names.
There are two main processes that cause changes to the shape of a baby’s head. Primary plagiocephaly is when the asymmetry is present from birth – this is often due to excessive pressures on a particular area of the head either during pregnancy or the birth process. Interventions such as forceps and ventouse, as well as positional complications can all cause a variety of stresses and strains upon a baby’s body.
The other is secondary plagiocephaly – this occurs at some point after birth and is thought to be a result of children sleeping on their back or putting them in car seats/carriers for prolonged periods of time.
When a baby is born, their heads are mostly very soft, with the bones not being fully formed. This is important because it provides both protection and flexibility during the birth process. During the time that the rest of the bones grow together (ossify), the shape of the bones are left vulnerable to certain forces. Up to 50% of children in the UK will develop some form of plagiocephaly, with some studies suggesting that around 19% of these will suffer with developmental delays. In severe cases, babies may be referred to a specialist for use of a helmet. In majority of cases, however, some simple adaptations may help.
There are a wide range of specially shaped pillows that may provide additional comfort and support to a baby’s head, allowing the weight of the head to be dispersed over a larger area.
Tummy time can also help as it will encourage building strength in the neck muscles. This additional strength will allow a baby to hold their head with greater control and stability, meaning that they won’t necessarily be having to use a hard surface for support.
Osteopaths are able to use subtle techniques to encourage gentle movement of the bones within the head to move into a more natural position. Treatment can also help to relax baby’s bodies, and encourage symmetry in their feeding, sleeping and movement patterns – which over time may help to reduce any secondary flattening of their skulls. Osteopaths can spend time with new parents talking about feeding and sleeping routines to best encourage a baby’s development.