Most new mums know that they need to try to stop their newborn baby from developing a ‘flat head’ – an indentation in an infant’s soft skull which is often caused by the baby sleeping on its back.
But a flat head is not just an issue of aesthetics. New research from a study by the University of Melbourne has confirmed that babies who acquire a flat spot on their skull tend to have less developed head control.
Physiotherapist and PhD candidate Liz Williams worked with the Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital’s Plagiocephaly clinic, which treats about 1330 babies for ‘flat headedness’ a year, to determine how and why certain babies develop the condition.
Plagiocephaly is caused by prolonged pressure on the baby’s growing skull, thereby flattening the back of the head. In severe cases, the condition causes distorted facial features and a bulging forehead. Babies then must wear head shape-correcting helmets to address the problem.
The research found that babies at the Plagiocephaly clinic are an average of seven-months-old, yet over half (54 per cent) did not meet pull-to-sit development guidelines for head control.
As a result of the research findings, Williams created a fact sheet for new parents to help them avoid what she says is an avoidable condition. The physiotherapist explains that the current advice to give babies plenty of “tummy time”, and alternate on which side their head rests, is insufficient to avoid the condition.
“Many new parents follow advice to ‘position’ their resting baby with their head on one side, then on the other side, when we need to encourage babies to be active, to move themselves by engaging with them from birth," Williams said.
Plagiocephaly has become increasingly common since 1992, when the “back to sleep” message was widely adopted to combat Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In Australia, Red Nose recommends sleeping babies on their back, a recommendation which Williams fully supports - which is why her fact sheet aims to educate parents on what they can do to avoid flat-headedness when back-sleeping.
“It is reasonable to expect infants to control their heads, especially to the midline and side to side with a ‘chin tuck’, by two to three months and to maintain their head against gravity by themselves when pulled up to a sitting position by four to five months,” Williams said.
Improved head control would enable babies to not get stuck on one side, reducing prolonged pressure on one spot. Williams hopes the fact sheet, which contains exercises and advice for parents, will help reduce the number of babies being treated for plagiocephaly, and demonstrate the role parents play in helping their babies gain better head control.
Tips from the fact sheet include:
Sleep baby on their back from birth, not on their tummy or side.
Even newborn babies can move their head to each side by following their parents’ eyes or voice.
From birth babies need both tummy time and face time, which can be on the floor.
Babies heads are heavy and need support.
Tummy time can include when your baby is lying on you.