Noticed a flat patch on your baby’s head? Don't be alarmed. Nine times out of 10, it will be flat head syndrome, which is really manageable and treats itself. It's a completely natural condition that affects many babies.
Why is my baby's head flat?
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 one in every five 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, causing the head to look asymmetrical," 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 flat head syndrome happen?
A young baby’s skull is really soft and pliable, which means that it can get moulded into a slightly different shape if there is constant pressure on part of the head. Here are some of the reasons this might happen:
• Since your baby spends most of their time lying down on their back, their head may naturally become flattened on the part that is bearing most of their weight.
• Premature babies are more likely to develop a flattened head as their skill is softer when born.
• Your little one's head can get a bit squashed in the womb or there might be a lack of amniotic fluid to cushion them.
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.
When to get medical advice
If you're concerned about the shape of your little one's head, you should speak to your health visitor or GP who will examine your baby and suggest things that may help.
How is it treated?
Your baby's head will naturally start to round off as they grow and starts to move around but there are a few things you can do to help this process and take pressure off the flattened part of your baby's head.
"Put your baby’s head in different positions to take pressure off the affected area," suggests Dr Kourita. "Encourage them to look around as much as possible by moving toys and mobiles around in their cot."
It's also worth trying to alternate the side your hold your baby when carrying or feeding them.
You should 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 your bub is between three and four months.
It may be a couple of months before you notice an improvement in your baby's head shape but by the time they are one or two years old, any flattening will be hardly noticeable.
While there are specially designed devices including helmets and headbands that claim to help improve the shape of your child's head, these generally aren't recommended as there is not enough evidence they work, they're expensive and may be uncomfortable for your baby.
Are there long-term effects of flat head syndrome?
Thankfully, there are no long-term side effects for babies with flat head syndrome and your child won't experience any pain or other symptoms either.
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. This is known as craniosynostosis and fortunately, this is rare and your GP should reassure you and answer any questions you have.