Have you noticed a little flat spot on the baby of your baby’s head? Do they seem to prefer lying on one side? Are you questioning whether they need a baby helmet for flat head syndrome?
If you’re like me, the idea of getting a helmet for your child’s misshapen head brings on all kinds of guilt. Believe me. I’ve had the conversations with my pediatrician. Breathe deep, mama. You’ve done nothing wrong. In fact, flat spots on infant heads are more common than you think.
First, read this article to learn about baby helmets for flat heads, and then, talk with your doctor about your concerns. (And maybe get yourself a little present for being an awesome mommy while you’re at it!)
What Is Flat Head Syndrome?
Flat head syndrome is a condition where your baby has a flat spot or misshapen head. This usually develops when infants are a few months old. There are two types:
Plagiocephaly is when one side of the head becomes flattened, causing an asymmetrical or slanted appearance. Sometimes, the ears may look misaligned or one ear pushes forward, and you may notice a bald spot in one particular area of the head.
Brachycephaly is when the back of the head becomes flattened. The forehead may bulge out slightly, and the head appears to widen.
The severity of flat head syndrome varies. If you notice any of these symptoms in your baby, it’s best to seek medical advice from your pediatrician. Just because your child has a flat spot, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need a baby helmet for flat head syndrome.
Why Does Flat Head Syndrome Occur?
At birth and for several months after, infants’ skulls are soft, allowing the head some flexibility as it travels through the birth canal. The skull should fully fuse by the time a baby is 26 months old. But until then, it’s soft and prone to flattening. Flat head syndrome can happen for a number of reasons.
Position in the birth canal or difficult labor
Sometimes, the way the baby lays in the birth canal puts pressure on one spot of the skull for a prolonged period of time. And because the skull is soft, this might cause flattening.
If a woman has a difficult birth, it may require the use of forcepts or a vacuum. This was my personal experience. My son had to be delivered by vacuum and ended up developing a bruise on his skull. He frequently rested his head on the side opposite the bruise, which eventually caused a flat spot.
It’s not uncommon to see flat head syndrome in multiples—twins, triplets, and so forth. The uterus is cramped enough with one fetus, but with multiples, one or more babies might take on an unusual position. This may cause prolonged pressure on part of the skull.
Preferred head positioning
Sometimes, babies just get comfortable turning their heads to one side while on their backs. Without varying their position, the constant pressure on the same spot of their skull may cause flattening.
Infant skulls are already soft, but the earlier a baby is born, the softer the skull will be. Longer hospitalization times for preemies might mean extra time spent on their backs, which can lead to flat head syndrome.
This is a condition in which tight or shortened neck muscles make it difficult for babies to reposition their heads. Infants with torticollis may need physical therapy as well as helmet therapy.
How Common Is Flat Head Syndrome?
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 1 in 4 children will develop positional plagiocephaly because of the amount of time they spend on their backs. About 80% of cases are noted during the first 4 to 12 weeks after birth.
Doctors have noticed a rise in this condition since the 1992 “Back to Sleep” campaign, which pushed for infants to be put to sleep on their backs.
Just because your child has a flat spot, it doesn't necessarily mean they need a baby helmet for flat head syndrome.
Decreasing the Risk of Flat Head Syndrome
A flat spot on your infant’s head is nothing to be alarmed about—it’s so common! Most of the time, there are things you can do to correct it before helmet therapy.
- Use repositioning techniques.
- Alternate the way they lay in the crib or changing table
- Alternate the arm you hold/feed them with
- Limit time in containers (i.e. play gyms, car seats, strollers, etc.)
- Put toys on either side of the crib or activity mat and encourage head movement
- Lots of tummy time! Infants need to develop neck muscles through tummy time, and as a bonus, they aren’t on their backs, which gives their heads a break from the weight.
- Early detection is the best prevention and may allow you to avoid a helmet. Early signs include:
- Loss of hair in one spot
- Asymetrical features (i.e. one ear looks pushed forward)
- Flattening in one spot of the skull
- Head that appears mishapen or slanted
How Does a Baby Helmet for Flat Head Work?
Sometimes, a baby helmet for flat head syndrome is unavoidable, especially if the deformity is more serious. Helmet therapy might seem scary, but professionals ensure that both measuring for and wearing the helmet are perfectly comfortable for the baby. My friend’s son wore a helmet for a short time and was told it’s “comparable to wearing a wool cap.”
Baby is fitted with a special helmet that corrects the shape of their skull. The head is measured, sometimes with a 3-D scan, to determine the severity of the deformity. Then, your child receives a custom-fitted helmet. Baby helmets must be worn 23 hours a day, leaving one hour for bathing and cleaning.
The outside is of the helmet is hard, and there’s a gap inside where the head is flat based on the initial measurements. The helmet will be tighter where baby’s head is full. This puts pressure on the full spots, allowing the flat spots to grow and fill in the gaps.
At the time of the helmet fitting, the doctor will determine how often you need to schedule follow-up appointments to adjust the helmet. The frequency of adjustments depends on the child’s age and the severity of the deformity.
Does My Child Need a Baby Helmet?
Your child may be a candidate for helmet therapy if they are less than 12 months old and have been diagnosed with deformational plagiocephaly, brachycephaly, or scaphocephaly.
The most drastic skull growth happens before 12 months. So while your child may still qualify for a helmet after 12 months, you may not see as much of a difference in skull shape with helmet therapy.
Not all infants are candidates for helmet therapy, so it’s important to discuss diagnosis and treatment options with your doctor. Sometimes, flat head syndrome is superficial and won’t end up causing any issues with brain growth development.
That was the case with my son. His skull shape was not even a 1/4-inch difference from what doctors consider normal. We opted not to get him a helmet because he was purely an aesthetic case. So, no. Your child doesn’t need a baby helmet, even if their asymmetry is more noticeable. But helmet therapy is available for parents who want to take advantage of it.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does helmet therapy last?
The average length of time for helmet therapy is three months, but it ultimately depends on the child’s age and the severity of the condition.
Does flat head syndrome affect development?
The short answer is no. There haven’t been any long-term studies that found a major correlation between flat head syndrome and brain development. However, choosing to forgo a baby helmet may impact children later on in more practical and psychological ways. They may have difficulty wearing glasses if their ears are misaligned or may experience bullying for their asymmetry if it’s severe enough.
Are baby helmets covered by insurance?
Baby helmets for flat head syndrome are considered “durable medical equipment.” And most insurance companies will cover them. Sometimes, they want proof that you’ve done a number of repositioning techniques before covering a helmet. Keep in mind, though, that just because your insurance may cover a cranial helmet, you may still owe something for it. It all depends on your plan.
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