‘Flat-head’ helmets don’t work, say scientists

Spending £2000 on a helmet to correct your baby's flat head is probably not the best course of treatment, new study finds

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Special helmets designed to correct flat-head syndrome actually make no meaningful difference to a baby’s head shape, say Dutch scientists.

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The helmets – which are often expensive and have to be worn for 23 hours a day over 6 months or more – have become increasingly popular with parents who are concerned that their baby has positional skull deformation, a condition often referred to as flat-head syndrome, in which the the head looks oddly shaped and/or flattened at the back. 

But, according to the new Dutch study, children who don’t wear these helmets are as likely to make a full recovery from flat-head syndrome as those who wear them.

And, given how expensive the helmets are, and the fact that parents say their babies often get rashes and irritation, and feel sweaty wearing them, the researchers say, they’d “discourage the use of a helmet as a standard treatment for healthy infants with moderate to severe skull deformation”.

What is flat-head syndrome?

Flat-head syndrome is a catch-all term for the various different types of positional skull deformation. It’s thought to affect 1 baby in 5 under the age of 6 months, and happens because a baby’s skull is growing fast and the skull bones are still soft enough to change shape as a result of pressure.

The relatively recent increase in cases of flat-head syndrome is thought to be partly down to the 1992 recommendation to place infants on their backs when they sleep to avoid Sudden Death Syndrome (SIDS), often known as cot death. 

The most common types of deformation are plagiocephaly, where one side of the head becomes flattened and the ears can become misaligned, and brachycephaly, where the back of the head is flattened and the front of the skull may bulge.

So, should I not buy a helmet if my baby has flat-head syndrome?

The evidence does seem to be pointing that way. Even before this new study was published, you couldn’t get helmet treatment on the NHS because there wasn’t enough clear evidence that helmets work.

Bear in mind also, that a helmet can cost up to £2,500, and parents in the new Dutch study reported side effects of wearing them that included:

  • Skin irritation (in 96% of cases)
  • Feeling hindered from cuddling baby (77%)
  • Unpleasant smell (76%)
  • Sweating (71%)
  • Pain (33%)

That said, of the parents whose babies wore helmets, the average satisfaction score after the end of treatment, and when the baby was assessed at 2 years old, was 4.6 out of 5.

How do you fix flat-head syndrome without a helmet?

Well, if the deformation is mild, your baby’s skull should correct itself naturally over time if you:

  • Give your baby time on their tummy during the day and encourage her to try new positions during play time. 
  • Switch your baby regularly between a sloping chair, a sling and a flat surface, so that there isn’t constant pressure on one part of her head.
  • Change the position of toys and mobiles in her cot to encourage your baby to turn her head to the non-flattened side.

If your baby’s deformation seems more severe or she seem to have problems turning her neck in one direction, you’re best off seeking medical advice. Your GP may decide she needs more intensive treatment, such as physiotherapy to help loosen her neck muscles.

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