My baby had a flat head but we avoided having to use a helmet. Here's how we did it.
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Photo courtesy of Arielle Calderon, Creative Commons

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Babies wearing helmets? What are they for and why on earth are kids wearing them these days? They come in bright colors, designs, and they even make decals for them to dress them up. Helmet Molding Therapy is the technical name for it and is used to help correct babies who have deformational plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome). We were able to avoid the need to use one with our daughter and while some of these methods won’t work with every baby here’s what we did to avoid a helmet.

About two months after my middle daughter was born we noticed that she was always looking to the left. Laying down she’d turn her head to the left. When I held her in my arm it was always my left arm because I’m right-handed and as a busy mom with a newborn and a two-year-old running around I needed to have my dominant hand readily available. At her 8-week well child visit, I asked my pediatrician if what I was seeing was normal and I shouldn’t be concerned or if there was something more to my little girl’s left-side favoritism. What I learned during that visit was that my daughter had torticollis and as a result, it was causing her to have flat head syndrome. A definition of torticollis that I found to be helpful is from Day 2 Day Parenting,

Torticollis means ‘twisted neck’ and is caused by damage to or a shortening of the Sterno-cleido-mastoid muscle (SCM muscle) in a baby’s neck. Congenital Muscular Torticollis (CMT) can be caused by in-utero positioning, lack of space in the uterus, a traumatic birth, a multiple birth or low amniotic fluid. Some babies have an actual tumor in the SCM muscle, while other babies just have tightness or thickness in the SCM muscle. Some babies may have no tumor or tightness, but have asymmetric neck posture due to eye problems, congenital absence of cervical muscles, low muscle tone or general delayed development.

 

Torticollis and Flat Head Syndrome
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Babies who have torticollis will typically look to either their right or left only.

What will the doctor look for? What happens if my baby is referred to physical therapy?

During the appointment, my pediatrician put my daughter on her tummy and looked at the symmetry of her little head.  If the symmetry was bad she would refer us to physical therapy.  The left side of my daughter’s head was becoming so flat that her left ear was being pushed to the front and the left side of her forehead was beginning to bulge. We were referred to physical therapy
Our physical therapy appointment went well.  The physical therapist confirmed that my daughter had torticollis; the left side neck muscle was weak and the right side neck muscle was tight.  I also learned that because my daughter was always looking to the left in her little world the left was what was normal and midline, or center. Hearing that really put things into perspective for me.
The goals our physical therapist had for my daughter were simple:
  • to stretch out and loosen up her neck
  • to teach her that the midline from her nose to her belly button is how the world should look.

We, and by “we” I mean “I”, had homework to do. My homework consisted of stretching my daughter’s neck to do three to four times a day. Our physical therapist also gave us a few exercises to do that would help her become re-orientated in the right mid-line direction. Those exercises were taking toys such as the Oball (pictured below). I would shake the Oball in front of her so that she would have to turn her head to find where the noise was coming from. Then she’d grab for the ball front and center. We also used  the Fisher-Price Go Baby Go! 1-2-3 Crawl Along Snail and I would get her attention by turning the snail on so it would sing and then she’d have to turn her head to look for the snail which was always on the right.

Our physical therapist also had other suggestions we took her up on: 

  • We used a Baby Moon pillow for her to rest on during nap times and bedtime. The pillow works because it helps alleviate pressure on the back of the head or for her the left side of the head because the small hole in the center of the pillow makes it challenging for her to move.
  • When she was awake she was always on her stomach so she wasn’t applying pressure to the already flat side of her head. Once she became strong enough to use an activity jumper you would find her hanging out in her activity jumper.
  • The physical therapist also turned us on to using Summer Infant’s Cradler Head Positioning Pillow in her car seat. Again, the goal was to get her to realize that the world happened front and center from her belly button so the head positioning pillow helped with that in her car seat.
  • Integrating chiropractic care to help loosen her neck muscles up. We saw a chiropractor who worked on her neck and did some cranial massage as well.

How long does a parent have to correct deformational plagiocephaly before it’s determined that a helmet is needed?

My doctor told us that we had until our daughter was 5 months old to correct the problem. Since I knew that the source of her flat head syndrome was her torticollis I focused all of my attention on working with her daily. If the physical therapist said to stretch her neck three times a day, you better believe that I did it. If the physical therapist wanted us to do as much tummy time as possible and purchase little pillows that would help position her head, I said where can I find them? If I had to resist the urge to hold my daughter with my left arm, by golly, I got smart and went against what felt natural to me and held her in my right arm.
We avoided the helmet. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot of work. It didn’t happen overnight; my daughter was in physical therapy for four months. I remember at the time when she was diagnosed I was lamenting on my Facebook over the fact that she may have to wear a helmet. Naturally, all of my friends chimed in with their opinions, “Only use a chiropractor” and “You’ll just have to get the helmet, you can’t do anything to stop it”. I’m happy to say that I was met with a lot of different options for my child and combining all of them together worked for us. You see, it doesn’t have to be the same treatment or nothing at all, you can mix and match. I mixed chiropractic care and essential oils with physical therapy. I think that any treatment that will help avoid your baby having to wear a helmet should be met with optimism and perseverance.

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Bert Anderson is a blogger and social media manager mom of three living outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She’s the author behind the blog First Time Mom, where she honestly chronicles the peaks and valleys of parenting. Even though she has more than one child, Bert maintains that whether you have one child or 19, there’s a first time for everything. She’s a lover of coffee, conversations, pop culture, healthy living and fitness.

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