How does your baby like to sleep?

Since the mid-1990’s we’ve been educating parents to put babies on their backs to sleep. When we first started the Back to Sleep (now Safe to Sleep) campaign, many parents – and grandparents – wondered if babies really would be safe sleeping on their backs. (I think “what if she throws up?” was the major question.) When Back to Sleep began, only 17% of parents said they put their babies to sleep on their backs. By 2006 it was over 75% – and the rate of Sudden Unexplained Infant Death went down considerably. (Why? One theory has to do with slow wave sleep patterns – basically babies that sleep too deeply for their own good. It is in fact good that babies rouse during the night – regardless of what we tend to think!)

But have you ever heard of The Law of Unintended Consequences? It basically says that when you pass a law, or start a public health campaign, you will often get a surprise along with what you hoped would happen. In this case it’s a condition called plagiocephaly – also called Flat Head Syndrome.

Over the years, studies have found that between 3-61% of babies have some degree of Flat Head Syndrome. In a new research study from Canada, which looked at 440 healthy babies, ages 7-12 weeks, 47 % of the babies had the condition.

The good news is – Flat Head Syndrome seems to go away by itself in most children, by the time they are two or three years old. And it doesn’t seem to affect brain growth or development.

But you know how people talk – and if your baby has a flat head, what they are saying is, “Doesn’t that baby ever get” – (choose one – or more!)
…out of that carseat
…tummy time
…picked up

Now the bottom line is that some babies are already a bit flat-headed when they are born. Babies do after all have a life inside the womb, and sometimes they snuggle in with their heads against the mom’s pelvis in a way that makes their head flat. There are also babies who have their heads turned one way for so long inside, they have a preference for which side their heads will go even when they are on their backs – and tummy time is not fun for them. In addition, the researchers found that in babies with flat spots, the preference – for the right side! – could be traced back to womb positioning. Wild stuff!

In any case, here are some ways to help your baby have the most beautiful, round head possible.

  1. Let your baby hang out on her tummy sometimes. At first, this may mean putting the baby on mommy’s or daddy’s chest while you are lying on your back! Or get in the recliner and put the baby on your chest – babies love to try looking at your face, which is good for their upper body strength. They also love any skin to skin they can get – even if it’s just their cheek against your neckline. If your baby has a preference for one side, try putting them in a position where they can look at your face most easily from the opposite side. Older babies may tolerate longer tummy time if you put them on your bed and then sit down on the floor – again so they can enjoy your face. Or watch TV sitting on the floor, with baby draped over one thigh. Some babies like having a rolled-up receiving blanket under their shoulders – same idea. That way they can work on their upper body strength and not get tired so quickly.
  2. Make it a point to get the baby out of the car seat when you are out and about. You know that car seat is killing your arm and shoulder muscles and getting you out of whack – find a carrier that you or your partner likes, and use it. You will improve your upper body strength as well! Babies love faces, and they will enjoy seeing the world from the safety of your arms. When they are newborns, they will just cuddle up and go to sleep – and people won’t be able to poke and drool all over them!
  3. If your baby is awake, and happy, put them on their backs in a different position from the usual. (You may have heard this called “flipping the baby” – in folklore it helps the baby sleep better at night. Don’t ask me where that one came from.) For example, turn the bassinet or crib the opposite way, or just put the baby’s feet where his head usually is. I suppose you could put the crib or bassinet in a different part of the room too.
  4. Change diapers from the side – preferably one that will help your baby “look the other way”!

Do you have other ideas to share? I’d love to hear them!

Here’s a video about plagiocephaly from Boston Children’s Hospital. It has great explanations and even shows a helmet that’s used with babies with severe plagiocephaly, to help their heads re-round themselves.

If you have concerns about the shape of your baby’s head, don’t hesitate to talk to your baby’s doctor about it. They see lots of babies and will help you decide whether your baby needs more help. (One great local resource is the parent educators at Children’s Integrated Services.)

And don’t forget – you can come see lots of babies (and moms!) at New Moms Network, every Wednesday morning here in the Exercise Room at BMH. I always found it was a great relief to see what range there is “normal” when it comes to babies – and it’s great to have friends who are worrying about the same things you are! You can find our schedule at

Or join our Brattleboro New Moms group on Facebook.

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