Try not to be alarmed if you notice a flat patch on your baby’s head – nine times out of 10 it will be flat head syndrome, which is really manageable and treats itself. It's a completely natural problem that affects a huge amount of babies and – most importantly – it doesn’t mean that you’ve missed a page of the parenting handbook
What is this?
‘Flat head’ syndrome sounds a lot worse than it is, so try not to stress if you think your baby has it. It’s a surprisingly common condition and is usually nothing to worry about – it affects up to a quarter of babies and tends to sort itself out.
‘The number of reported cases has increased since doctors placed an emphasis on putting babies on their backs to sleep in order to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS),’ says Dr Lida Kourita, of the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health. ‘This advice should still be followed.’
There are two main ‘types’ of flat head syndrome (prepare yourself for some big unpronounceable words).
'Plagiocephaly is where the head becomes flattened on one side,’ says Dr Kourita. ‘And brachycephaly is where it becomes flattened at the back, making the head look wider or the forehead more prominent.’
Why does it happen?
Your baby’s skull is really soft and pliable, which means that it may have been moulded into a slightly different shape when she was born.
The amount the head flattens can range, from being hardly noticeable to really obvious
‘This changed skull shape allows for the rapid brain growth post birth,’ Dr Kourita explains. ‘It also means that the shape of a baby’s head can change depending on the position its head rests in.’
Since your baby spends most of her time lying down on her back, her head may naturally become flatter on the part that is bearing most of her weight.
The amount the head flattens can range, from being hardly noticeable to really obvious – which, as a parent, can be extremely scary. But, it doesn’t affect the growth of the skull or the brain in any way and, in most cases, time is the only treatment needed.
How is it treated?
The head will naturally start to round off as your baby grows and starts to move around but there are a couple of things you can do to help this process.
‘Put your baby’s head in different positions to take pressure off the affected area,’ suggests Dr Kourita. ‘Encourage her to look around as much as possible by moving her toys around her cot.’
Also encourage some ‘tummy time’ every day – start with short sessions and then build the length of time up to at least 20 minutes by the time she’s three to four months.
Are there long-term effects?
Thankfully, there are no long-term side effects. But in a very small number of babies the abnormal head shape can hint at a separate problem.
‘This could mean that the bones of the skull have fused too early,’ says Dr Kourita. Fortunately, this is rare and your GP should reassure you and answer any questions you have.