Putting babies on their backs to sleep has sharply cut the rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), but it has also left nearly half of infants with a flattened head, a new Canadian study estimates.
Researchers found that 47 percent of 440 2-month-olds having routine check-ups had what doctors call positional plagiocephaly — where the back or one side of the head has a flat spot. It develops when infants spend a lot of time with the head resting in the same position against a flat surface.
Flat spots are a cosmetic issue — not a medical problem — experts stressed, and parents should keep putting their infants on their backs to sleep.
"It still is very important to put infants to sleep on their backs to prevent SIDS," said study author Aliyah Mawji, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.
The Royal Children's Hosptial Melbourne shares the following tips on how to prevent flat spots developing on your babies head:
- Sleep time: A baby must always be placed on their back to sleep to reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome/Cot Death). However, it is important to vary the position of your baby's head by alternating its position between the left and right side each time they sleep.
- Sleep position: Place your baby at alternate ends of the cot to sleep, or change the position of the cot in the room. Babies look at fixed objects like windows or wall murals. Changing their cot position will encourage them to look at different angles.
- Play time: Place your baby on their tummy or side to play when awake. You can also change the position of toys that your baby likes to look at.
Young infants are susceptible to flat spots because the bones of the skull are not fused together — so that the head can get through the birth canal and the skull can accommodate a rapidly growing brain later.
In recent years, doctors have been seeing more and more cases of flat spots, which is thought to be related to the Back to Sleep campaign. For the past 20 years, experts have been advising parents to put infants on their backs to sleep, on a flat crib surface, to reduce the risk of SIDS.
In Australia SIDS rates have fallen by 83% since the beginning of the campaign.
So keep putting your baby on her back to sleep, said Dr. Roya Samuels, a pediatrician at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York.
"Positional plagiocephaly is really a cosmetic issue," Samuels said. "There's no evidence that it affects the brain."
In those cases, some doctors prescribe a corrective helmet that can help redirect the growth of the baby's head.
Samuels said the most important thing is for parents to make routine visits to your local baby clinic or family GP so their baby's overall health and development — including changes in head shape and size — can be monitored.
While plagiocephaly is cosmetic, Samuels noted that there is another, far rarer condition that causes a misshapen head, called craniosynostosis. In that disorder, the skull bones fuse prematurely, which can harm normal brain development. It usually requires surgery.
Fortunately, positional plagiocephaly is usually the culprit behind infants' flat spots, Samuels said.
Plus, she pointed out, few people actually have perfectly symmetrical heads. "Underneath our hair, most of us have lumps and bumps," she said.
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