When my son was an infant, we followed modern medical wisdom and always put him to sleep facing upward. Within a few weeks, he developed a noticeably flat plane on one side of the back of his soft, bald little head.
“Deformational plagiocephaly” is the technical term, and it’s a widespread condition that has risen sharply since public health campaigns to put babies to sleep on their backs began in the 1990s. It affects at least one-fifth of American babies and possibly closer to half. My own overwrought, sleep-deprived diagnosis sounded more like, “Oh, no, my baby’s head is going flat!”
We brought him to specialists who raised the prospect that he might need to wear a helmet virtually non-stop for a few months, to protect his flat spot from pressure and help it round back out.
A helmet? All day and night? But there was no actual danger from his moderate head-flattening, no known risk except perhaps of future ridicule. In the end, we tried a custom-carved foam “head cup” and special “positioner” pillows to help vary which side he slept on. And we consoled ourselves that he just wouldn’t be able to become a skinhead when he grew up, which was surely just as well.
It’s the kind of parental decision you can second-guess yourself about forever. (There’s no sign of any flatness nine years later beneath his full head of hair, but what happens if he goes bald?) So I found welcome reassurance in a study just out in the journal BMJ on “Helmet therapy in infants with positional skull deformation.”
The paper is small but it’s the first randomized, controlled study — the gold standard in medical research — of helmets for plagiocephaly in babies. And it found that, at least in 84 babies without other risk factors, the helmets don’t help. The babies tended to improve with or without helmets. From the press release:
There was no meaningful difference in skull shape at the age of two years between children treated with therapy helmet and those who received no active treatment. Both groups showed similar improvements although only a quarter made a full recovery to a normal head shape, according to the team of researchers based in The Netherlands.
The results are especially underwhelming when you consider that the helmets, made of firm foam in a hard plastic shell, can cost as much as several thousand dollars, even in Great Britain, where the national health system doesn’t tend to pay for them.
The findings can also seem a bit daunting when you consider that once the flat-headedness developed in babies, only about a quarter of them fully “normalized,” helmet or not.
Dr. Carolyn Rogers-Vizena, a craniofacial surgeon in the department of plastic and oral surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital, emphasizes this point: By no means should concerns about head flatness dissuade parents from putting babies to sleep on their backs, which is known to protect against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Back-sleeping alone should not be blamed, she added; babies who develop flat heads usually have other risk factors that lessen mobility, including neck tightness, prematurity or developmental delays.
Also, the study offers useful new knowledge but it’s only one small study, she said, “it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all.”
Because the study is the first of its kind and has not yet been reproduced by other researchers, “it won’t yet dramatically change my practice,” Dr. Rogers-Vizena said. “But it gives me something new to tell parents when we’re counseling them, and hopefully bigger, higher-powered studies will come out so we can get a sense of who’s an appropriate candidate for a helmet and who’s not.” Continue reading