Celebrity mom Chrissy Teigen generated buzz recently by sharing a photo of her 6-month-old son, Miles, wearing a cranial helmet. Though the image of a baby in headgear might make you do a double-take, many parents are familiar with this simple and effective form of therapy used to treat young babies’ plagiocephaly.
Plagiocephaly — sometimes called “flat head syndrome” — is both common and treatable, typically occurring in infants whose skulls are less firm than older children.
We consulted AdventHealth for Children pediatric physical therapist Susan Robins to learn more about the diagnosis and treatment of this particular condition.
Why has plagiocephaly become common?
In 1992, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended newborns be put to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS. Since then, cases of plagiocephaly have become much more common; the condition is often a result of sleeping in the same position repeatedly.
“Because parents are told to put their baby ‘Back to Sleep,’ they’re sometimes afraid to incorporate tummy time during the day for play,” said Robins.
Even if your baby does not have plagiocephaly, routine “tummy time” is still a great prevention method. But sometimes, the condition is simply inevitable. Some degree of plagiocephaly is common at birth due to the baby’s position in the womb, but may resolve itself as the child grows.
“Many times babies develop a misshapen head because of a tight neck muscle which makes them tilt and/or turn to one side more than the other,” Robins said.
Is it painful?
Fortunately, plagiocephaly isn’t painful for your child. Even if it requires a helmet to treat, your baby should quickly adapt to his or her new accessory. If worn properly, problems like skin irritation and discomfort should not occur.
How is it treated?
“If a neck muscle is tight, the baby will benefit from physical therapy to stretch the tight muscle as well as strengthen all of the neck muscles,” says Robins. “If not addressed, a head tilt can lead to asymmetrical sitting, crawling with one leg up and asymmetrical walking, all because they have difficulty lengthening on the shortened side to shift their weight.”
If physical therapy isn’t the solution for your baby’s plagiocephaly, helmet therapy can help. The helmets are custom-fit and foam-lined so they can snugly direct growth of the bones. It’s important to start this therapy early — before the bones become naturally fused — if it’s recommended by your baby’s doctor.
“We’ve seen amazing results in a relatively short period of time,” said Robins, though each child is unique. “Depending on the severity, kids generally wear the helmet only 3 to 6 months.”
To learn more about our pediatric rehabilitation programs for plagiocephaly and many other conditions, visit our AdventHealth for Children website.