How to stop babies getting a flat head

Putting babies to sleep on their backs has saved countless lives – but it’s also led to an increase in the prevalence of flat head syndrome.

Parents have long been advised to sleep babies on their back to reduce the risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

And it’s proven to be lifesaving advice, with SIDS rates falling 85 per cent between 1989 and 2016.

But it’s had the unintended consequence of more babies developing plagiocephaly, or flat head syndrome.

Also known as flat-headedness, plagiocephaly occurs when prolonged pressure causes a flat spot on a baby’s skull.

In severe cases, it can distort the baby’s facial features.

A Canadian study found almost half of 440 healthy babies aged two to three months had plagiocephaly.

New guidelines for parents

University of Melbourne researcher and physiotherapist Liz Williams says flat-headedness can be avoided.

Together with Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, she has produced a fact sheet to guide new parents.

She says “tummy time” is important to help babies develop head control and avoid flat headedness.

But parents also need “face time” with their baby to help them move their head themselves.

“Many new parents follow advice to ‘position’ their resting baby with their head on one side, then on the other side,” Liz says.

“They also need to encourage babies to be active when they are awake and happy and to move by themselves by engaging face-to-face with them from birth.

“Making eye contact is also a lovely way to get to know your baby.”

The importance of head control

Liz says helping babies develop head control is important, so they don’t get ‘stuck’ on one side and place pressure on the same spot on their head.

“It’s reasonable to expect infants to control their heads, especially to the midline and side to side with a ‘chin tuck’(so they’re looking down with a double chin) by two to three months,” she says.

“They should maintain their head against gravity by themselves when pulled up to a sitting position by four to five months.”

Liz Williams’ top tips to prevent flat heads in babies

  • Support newborn babies in the curled-up position.
  • Choose time for playing – when your baby is looking at you, after a nappy change, or in the bath.
  • Tummy time can include when they are lying on you; this is when babies hold their head up for the first time.
  • Face time can be in your arms, and tummy time can be on the floor.
  • Make eye contact and get them to follow your eyes and turn their head themselves. Even a newborn baby can move their head to each side by following your eyes or a toy or listening to your voice.

Written by Sarah Marinos