A new study published in the journal BMJ is calling into question the conventional wisdom that molded plastic helmets can help babies who have deformational plagiocephaly, or flat heads caused by sleeping on their backs or a neck condition called torticollis. More from WBUR.org, Boston's NPR station:
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."
Image: Girl wearing a helmet, via Shutterstock