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Flat Head Syndrome: Causes, treatments and tips for prevention

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) "Back to Sleep" program is credited for saving countless infants from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), but the number of babies with cranial asymmetry has been on the rise ever since the program's inception in the 1990s. Because more people are aware of the risk of suffocation associated with putting a baby to sleep on his belly, laying a baby down on his back has become the doctor-recommended and parent-preferred way for a baby to snooze.

But all this back-sleeping for an immobile infant (approximately 14-18 hours each day until a baby is about 18-months-old) can cause the back of the skull to flatten out. The condition, called plagiocephaly if one side of the back of the skull is flatter than the other, or brachycephaly if both sides of the back of the skull are equally flat, is common in approximately 48 percent of healthy infants, according to flatheadprevention.org. If left untreated, babies with Flat Head Syndrome are at risk for learning and developmental delays, orthodontic and TMJ issues, scoliosis, visual impairments, auditory problems, and possibly psychological and/or social issues.

Doctor's screen for skull flattening at the 2- and 3-month well baby check-ups and may recommend stretching and repositioning pediatric physical therapy, in addition to helmet therapy to help reshape the head, if Flat Head Syndrome is diagnosed. Helmet therapy involves wearing an individually customized helmet for a specified period of time each day as the skull is gradually reshaped over the course of a few months. Since the skull hardens through the toddler years, plagiocephaly detection and diagnosis within the first year of a child's life is critical to early treatment and a full recovery.

If your child has been diagnosed with Flat Head Syndrome and prescribed helmet therapy, check out Paula Strawn's amazing way of transforming a standard therapy helmet into an adorably unique accessory. After designing her first helmet 12 years ago upon the request of a friend, her business, Lazardo Art, took off and has been booming ever since. (In addition to baby helmets, she also makes leg braces fun and fashionable with her customized paintings.)

And if you're a mom-to-be or new mom, remember these important tips for preventing Flat Head Syndrome:

  • Provide ample tummy time--approximately half of your baby's awake time should be spent on his belly.
  • Avoid extended periods of time in an infant car seat carrier.
  • Avoid the use of soft slings or other wearable baby carriers--carry him in your arms instead to take the constant pressure off of the back of his head.
  • Alternate the way his head is turned each time he is laid on his back.

It's important to note the difference between plagiocephaly and the more serious birth defect known as craniosynostosis. Craniosynostosis is the condition in which the joints between the bones in a baby's skull join prematurely, making it impossible for the brain to grow. Surgery is typically required to separate the fused bones, which then allows enough space for the brain to develop. Discuss any concerns with your pediatrician if you're worried about the shape or growth of your child's head.

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