At around 4 months old, Will’s pediatrician recommended that we see a specialist because his head “looks a little flat.” Being a first-time mom, I thought his little smooshy head looked perfect. But I obeyed and made the appointment, thinking how proud I'd be when we walked out of there with a gleaming report.
But one (very short and shocking) visit later, a plastic surgeon declared that my son had deformational plagiocephaly (that’s medical speak for a flat head) and would need a helmet to round it out. Thankfully, because of his age, he would likely only have to wear it for a few months.
That’s all I remember from that visit because guilty mom thoughts began clouding my brain. I remembered those middle-of-the-night feedings when I didn’t rotate his head because I was just so happy that he went right back to sleep, those times I put him down for naps in his Rock and Play where he couldn't easily turn his head, and the times that should have been dedicated to “tummy time,” but I held him instead because, well, I wanted to! Less than 5 months old, I thought at the time, and I'd already failed him! We left the office with a pamphlet, a prescription for a helmet and a very cranky baby.
I learned that my son is far from alone. According to Dr. Mark Mittler, Northwell Health’s co-chief of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, since the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came up with its Back to Sleep program in the early 1990s, “We’ve created a nation of misshapen heads. But for good reason: to help avoid SIDS.” While it’s not possible to directly attribute the decrease in SIDS to this program, it’s likely that it has helped—according to an AAP study, SIDS cases have declined 50 percent since the program’s launch. “In the past, we believed it was better to put kids to bed on their stomachs,” continues Dr. Mittler. “We know better now. So we just deal with the cosmetic ramifications of a flat head if and when they arise.” Dr. Mittler sees about a dozen children a week with head shape issues.
A week later, we were off to a cranial remolding specialist who would fit Will for his helmet. The specialist explained that the helmet would allow his head room to expand in the back, even while resting against the bed or other hard, flat surfaces. Within a few days, he assured us, babies are typically used to wearing the helmet and it becomes a part of everyday life.
The measurement process was quick and easy—a sock-like hat with sensors was placed on his little head, and a device that looked like a retail scanner was used to circle his head and take measurements. It was completely painless, although Will enjoyed a nice freak-out during the appointment.