Caring for you as we would for ourselves

What is plagiocephaly and how can you prevent it?

Plagiocephaly or flat head syndrome is a disorder where some babies develop a deformed head shape. Although it sounds alarming, this medical condition is usually harmless. It is characterised by a flat spot on the back or side of the head caused by how a newborn lies. The consequences are usually only aesthetic, but they may significantly alter a baby’s appearance and can cause abnormal head shape, facial asymmetry, abnormal forehead shape, misaligned ears and asymmetrical eyes.

What causes plagiocephaly?

Studies on the phenomenon have shown that the time babies spend on their backs – in the supine position – can have an impact on skull deformation. A correlation has also been found between babies not spending enough time lying on their stomachs when they are awake and the development of plagiocephaly.

Excessive use of accessories where a baby rests on their back (for example, sleeping in a car seat outside of the vehicle, long periods in a baby bouncer or swing chair, etc.) increases the time their head is supported against a relatively firm surface and causes the flattening to get worse. Statistics show that more boys develop plagiocephaly than girls.

How can you prevent plagiocephaly?

While it is important for your newborn to sleep on their back to prevent the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), you must make sure that they do not spend hours lying with their head resting on a hard surface when they are awake. Try placing your baby face down on your chest (or your partner’s) to help introduce them to this new position.

You can then regularly place your baby on their stomach on a soft surface, such as carpet, for ‘tummy time’ to help them develop additional skills by strengthening their head, neck and back muscles. Putting toys in front of their eyes is a great way to get their attention and increase their time on their front.

Reducing the time your baby spends in accessories where their position does not change much, such as car seats and slings, and making sure you regularly change what they are supported against can stop them from developing flat spots on their head.

Remember to also vary the position of their cot, so that your baby does not always turn their head to the same side. Their gaze is instinctively directed towards you (when you sleep in the same room together) or towards a light source, so rotating their cot will help to vary the position of their head.

When should you see a specialist for plagiocephaly?

If you notice your baby has developed any flats spots on their head, please contact your paediatrician immediately. If necessary, he or she will recommend physiotherapy sessions. If further care is needed, you can be referred for specialised treatment. The paediatric unit and NICU at Hôpital de La Tour are always available to answer questions or concerns you may have.

Dr med. Roberta De Luca, Paediatrician, Neonatologist, Member of the Swiss Medical Association (FMH), Head of the NICU