Is Plagiocephaly the Parents' Fault?
Plagiocephaly, also called "flat head syndrome," is a common condition characterized by a flat spot on the back or side of a baby’s head. It can develop in as little as one week after birth and occurs in nearly one out of every two infants.
It’s very common for the parents of an infant with plagiocephaly to blame themselves, or to wonder if they did something to cause their child to develop the condition. At Boston Orthotics & Prosthetics, we have treated thousands of babies with plagiocephaly, and we say this to all the concerned parents we see: Plagiocephaly is not your fault.
Babies are born with malleable heads to allow for brain growth, and one of the side effects of that softness is that a baby’s head is very easy to mold. Babies can get plagiocephaly because of the position they sleep or rest in, and babies can even be born with misshapen heads.
In fact, plagiocephaly very often occurs as the result of something the parents are doing right!
In 1994, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development launched the Back to Sleep campaign to raise awareness about safe sleeping for infants and the danger of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which is the leading cause of death in infants between 1 month and 1 year of age.
The campaign encouraged parents to place healthy infants on their backs to sleep, rather than on their stomachs. Numerous studies showed that placing infants to sleep on their backs helped reduce SIDS risk.
Since the start of the Back to Sleep campaign (now called Safe to Sleep), SIDS rates in the United States have decreased by almost 50%. But because back sleeping can contribute to flat head syndrome, plagiocephaly has become more common since the Back to Sleep campaign was implemented, with one study showing that babies now have a 46.6% chance of developing it.
Back sleeping isn’t the only thing that can cause plagiocephaly, however. Other risk factors for plagiocephaly are an imbalance in the neck muscles called muscular torticollis, being part of a multiple birth, or being born prematurely. None of these risk factors are within the parents’ control.
If your baby has been diagnosed with plagiocephaly, it’s natural to be overwhelmed with feelings of worry, but it’s important to focus on the positive: plagiocephaly does not cause any pain in the baby, does not affect brain development, is not associated with any known medical problems, and can be easily and quickly treated with treatments including repositioning, physical therapy, cranial cradles, and cranial helmets.
For more information for patient families regarding plagiocephaly, visit our For Patients section.
To learn more about plagiocephaly, get support, and share your experience with other parents, visit the National Association for Plagiocephaly.