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What is Flat Head Syndrome?

By Steve R.
Updated May 17, 2024
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Flat head syndrome is a condition where an infant's head begins to form a flat spot or becomes lopsided as the result of some type of external pressure. Typically, after an infant passes through the birth canal, he will have a head that appears out of shape, and this condition normally will correct itself on its own as bones in the skull gradually fuse together. However, in some cases, if the head is still misshapen after six weeks, the infant will be diagnosed with flat head syndrome. There are different variations of this condition, including palgiocephaly and brachycephaly. Not life-threatening, the condition can typically be corrected with repositioning and medical devices.

The most frequent reason the syndrome occurs is due to how an infant sleeps. When an infant spends an excess amount of time on his back, it may result in the formation of a flattened head, which is referred to as palgiocephaly. The syndrome may also develop due to torticollis, a condition affecting the neck. When neck muscles are too weak, it causes a baby's head to tilt in one direction and the head is not able to form evenly.

Babies born prematurely are also apt to develop a flat head. Their skulls are extremely soft, and because they are so delicate, they spend a great deal of time on their backs. An infant can also develop a flattened head at birth if too much pressure is placed on the baby's skull by the mother's pelvis.

Palgiocephaly typically results in one side of the head developing flat head syndrome. An infant may be put in positions in cribs, strollers, or playpens where he lies flat. Almost no hair will develop in the area where the flat head takes shape. During the first year of life, an infant's head is extremely soft to allow his brain to grow. This causes the head to be vulnerable to taking on a flat shape.

Brachycephaly generally results as the back of the head flattens out evenly, resulting in an infant's head forming in a wide and short manner. This type of flat head syndrome typically occurs due to pressure on the back of the skull. With brachycephaly, an infant will have a broader head than normal and a face that is disproportionate to his head.

Male infants, first born infants, and infants that are part of multiple births, such as twins or triplets, are more at risk for developing flat head syndrome. Infants who develop the condition are also more prone to develop additional conditions down the road. These may include developmental delays, scoliosis, and vision and hearing difficulties. Early prevention and treatment are keys to preventing additional problems, as a child’s skull grows considerably during his first 12 months of life.

Treatment for flat head varies. One of the easiest treatments is to reposition infants during sleep to promote alternation of head movement while lying on their backs. Giving an infant time on his stomach helps to enhance normal formation of the back of the head and reinforces neck muscles.

In more severe cases, an infant may need to wear a cranial orthotic, which is a light-weight custom-made headband or helmet. The infant is required to wear the cranial orthotic 23 hours a day for a period of weeks or months, depending on the severity. The cranial orthotic, which has the most benefits before an infant turns one, promotes symmetrical growth of the skull.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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