Physicians have been seeing an increase in head and neck issues in infants since 1992, when the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended laying children on their backs to decrease sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Although the "Back to Sleep" campaign has lowered crib deaths by nearly 50 percent, deformities such as plagiocephaly (also called flat head syndrome) have been on the rise. That’s because back-laying infants have limited opportunities to move and stretch, causing their soft skulls to mold.
James Laughlin, M.D., a pediatrician in Bloomington, Indiana, a Fellow in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the primary author of "Prevention and Management of Positional Skull Deformities," says there are a number of preventative measures that parents can take. First and foremost, he says, it's important that parents continue placing infants on their backs to sleep. He also offers the following tips for how to prevent flat head syndrome.
Tummy time helps babies develop neck and shoulder muscle control. When they're not on their backs, babies are involved with their own physical therapy, exercising their growing bodies. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of supervised tummy time each day, broken up into segments. The best time to start is following the child's first visit to the pediatrician's office. By 4 to 6 months, your baby will be rolling over and engaging in tummy time on his own.
If you can tell that your baby's neck muscles are tight, or that he’s consistently holding his head in a certain position, try giving him a gentle neck massage. This should relax neck muscles and promote movement. Be aware that sometimes massage is uncomfortable for the child, because you're shifting out of his body’s comfort zone.
Grab your child's favorite stuffed animal, pick up a brightly colored toy, or shake a rattle. Then slowly move around the room. The child's eyes – and neck – will follow you.
A baby tends to hold his neck in the same position while seated in an infant seat or car carrier. When he's sleeping, it's better to place him flat on his back, so his neck muscles are in a neutral, stretched position.