"The reason why we want to catch this early is because if we see children with flattened heads, sometimes there are changes in their facial features," says Aliyah Mawji, a registered nurse at the university who led the study.
Pediatricians and pediatric nurses have noticed a big increase in the number of babies with flat spots on their heads – a condition known as positional plagiocephaly ("oblique head" in Greek).
Most experts say it's due to advice to put babies to sleep on their backs – which in turn has slashed rates of sudden infant deaths syndrome or SIDS. But babies have big, heavy heads and weak little necks, which means their heads tend to roll to one side. Because their skulls are still soft, this can cause a flat spot....
...So [Mawji] and colleagues did a survey in four Calgary clinics where parents bring their babies – each in a different type of neighborhood. They looked at 440 babies aged 7 to 12 weeks. "We found that 46.6 percent actually had some form of plagiocephaly," Mawji says.
A slight majority, 63 percent, had the flat spot on the right, and Mawji says that comes from the moment of birth.
"This is actually due to the birthing process itself," Mawji says. "The majority of infants come out in such a way that their head is turned to the right." This is in part because the mother's pelvic bone and spine don't move – they're hard bones – so the more flexible baby ends up squished and twisted.
If a baby doesn't move around enough, this flat spot can become more permanent. And if no one does anything, and the skull hardens, it could become really permanent.
Most of the cases Mawji saw were mild. And while she took care to get a range of family types into her study, she stresses that more research is needed to really show how common the issue is across the larger North American population. But her findings show it is probably more common than most people thought.
Experts recommend parents make a concerted effort to move their babies regularly, still putting them to sleep on their backs, but encouraging them to alternate which side of their head is against the mattress, seat, or swing.
Image: Sleeping baby, via Shutterstock