Babies are born with all sorts of head shapes—remember that viral cone head photo? Odd shapes usually correct themselves shortly after bith; baby’s head just needs to be soft and malleable to get through the birth canal. But plagiocephaly, or flat head syndrome, is a little different. It refers to a spot that stays flat. And it has to do with baby staying in one position for too long.
Back in 2013, a study published in Pediatrics screened 440 2-month-old babies, and found that 47 percent of them had flat spots.
But where do these prevalent flat spots come from? Because most of the affected infants in the study (63 percent) had flat spots on the right side of their heads, it may have something to do with the birthing process. “The majority of infants come out in such a way that their head is turned to the right,” study author Aliyah Mawji, RN, says. But what accounts for the remaining 37 percent? Experts site the crib, thanks to the AAP recommendation to put babies to sleep on their backs, an important SIDS prevention measure.
“If an infant stays on their back for long periods of time gravity may make these flat parts of the head worse,” Joseph O’Neil, MD, from Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health tells The Bump. But that doesn’t mean you should stop placing them in this sleeping position. “We really encourage parents to place all babies on their back in a crib with a firm mattress without any pillows or other objects.”
O’Neil adds that there are ways to prevent flat spots without resorting to stomach sleeping.
“Parents can alternate which side of the crib the baby sleeps on so that they have to turn their heads in both directions to see the parents,” he says. “And parents can place the baby on their tummy while awake for a total of 30 to 60 minutes a day divided into periods that the baby will tolerate.”
He says that limiting time in the car seat can also help prevent positional plagiocephaly.
“Limit time in car seats to only that time in the car traveling. Never use a car seat as a feeder, sleeper or carrier. Car seats are for cars only!”
The most reassuring news: Even if baby does develop flat spots, they will probably go away on their own.
“It may get worse around 4 months, but it should begin to show significant improvement by 6 months of age,” O’Neil says.
Updated October 2017