Helmets recommended to correct flat spots that develop on some babies’ heads don’t work, a new study published Thursday in the British Medical Journal suggests.
In 1992, a campaign launched by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urged parents to put their babies to sleep on their backs instead of their stomachs to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Since then, pediatricians have seen a spike in the number of babies who have developed a condition called positional plagiocephaly, characterized by flat or misshapen parts on their head. About 13 percent of healthy babies born develop the skull deformity, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Orthotic helmets, typically worn for about three months, are designed provide a tight, round space for the skull to grow in the flat regions.
The latest study looked at 84 healthy babies in the Netherlands who had moderate or severe flat spots on the side or back of their heads. Half of the babies wore a corrective helmet 23 hours a day everyday for six months, starting at age six months, while the other half received no treatment. The researchers measured the babies’ heads when they turned two-years-old and found that only 25 percent of babies who wore helmets regained normal skull shape compared to 22 percent of babies who had no treatment.
Although a majority of the babies did not regain normal head shape, parents of babies in both groups said they were generally satisified by with the shape of their child’s head by age two.
The findings confirm the AAP’s position published November 2011 in the journal Pediatrics that helmets are uneccessary for most babies with in most cases of plagiocephaly.
The parents of babies who wore helmets suggested that the helmet was more of a nuisance than a necessity, according to the study.
The majority of the parents of babies who wore a helmet said they felt they couldn’t cuddle as well with their baby. They also reported that their baby emitted an unpleasent smell and experienced skin irritation. Thirty-three percent of the parents said their baby found the helmet to be painful.
The results of the study, “argue for studies focusing on primary prevention of the condition and novel strategies to ameliorate skull deformation one it develops in early infancy,” Brent Collett, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle wrote in the study’s accompanying editorial.
Besides sleeping positions, in rare cases, plagiocephaly also forms in the womb, and can develop during the birthing process, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS). However, according to the physician group, flat spots do not affect babies’ brain development, sight or hearing. The vast majority of cases can be corrected with physical therapy, unless the condition seems to worsen, the AANS and AAP advise. In some cases, physicians may find a corrective helmet appropriate. Concerned parents should seek the advise of their child’s physician.
To prevent plagiocephaly, the AANS recommends that parents increase the amount of time babies spend on their stomach while awake, change the direction of the baby lying in the crib, and avoid too much time in car seats or carriers.Follow Lara on Twitter: @BostonLara