Flat head syndrome, or plagiocephaly as the condition is medically known, occurs when a flat spot develops on the back or side of a baby’s head. The condition can cause the baby’s head to look mis-shapen or asymmetrical.
It’s a commonly held belief that flat head syndrome is caused by too much time spent flat on the back in early infancy. The antidote? “Tummy Time” – according to many professionals in fields relating to child development.
Dr Emmi Pikler had other ideas, her theory was that children have a perfect developmental blueprint from birth and do not need to be EVER put into positions that they couldn’t get into or out of themselves. This theory has been proven (and well documented) over many years of research, observation and study.
Allowing babies to unfold naturally, in their own time and at their own time and pace is not only beautiful to watch but is also respectful of their free will, embraces their capability and allows them to move in ways that are enjoyable for them.
But how will babies develop normal shaped heads if we only ever place them on their backs??
Imagine you are brand new here in this world, seeing everything for the first time, the seventh time, the thirteenth time… it’s all captivating and you want to study and take in as much as you can. The tree out the window moves in the breeze and the reflection dances on the window… the phone rings in another room and causes footsteps to cross the floor… a truck rumbles past on the road outside.
All of these things, would cause you to turn your head, to seek out the direction of which the interesting thing came from. As a young infant, if your head was in a neutral position and your neck free as you lay on your back, you would move your head freely.
It’s this frequent moment and turning that, over time, ensures that the cranial growth plates fuse together evenly – creating the smooth round head shape. One thing we do need to be on the look out, is difficulty or aversion to turning the head a particular way. Often, newborns can be a little “jammed up” from birth etc, and need some further support from a trusted health professional to be able to move freely again. Observe baby and make sure that he can freely move his head to both sides.
And what for developing neck and core strength? I simply ask this question of you… if you want great abs…what do you need to do most of? Working out on your back and sides. Which is what babies are experts at, from birth!
Time spent on the back, working out is also essential for ironing out kinks in the body and working through the newborn birth reflexes that we all arrive with, but don’t want to hang onto forever.
All this said and done, is simply never popping baby on their tummy enough? No way! It’s a little more complex than that. I have had people contact me and say that they carry their babies in front packs all the time to avoid flat head, or sit them up early to create strength. None of these things align terribly well with free movement.
Here are my top tips to supporting baby through this important stage of life:
- Spend time giving baby 100% focused and attuned attention during the times you are actively caring for him. This will light up and engage his brain in all the right ways, creating super important neural pathways and connections. Serve and return communication is essential here. Observe baby, talk to him about all that you do, pause and wait for his response. This one on one time is not only vital for brain development, but it also fills up his connection tank, giving him the emotional energy to enter into his play/needs nothing time.
- We want to ensure that babies have ample time on a firm, flat surface (preferably the floor) in order to work out well. Putting her on too soft a surface, can inhibit this. Think of yourself doing some pilates. You wouldn’t do it in bed because you need the resistance of the floor, to move freely and exercise those muscles.
- Try to have baby spend as little time as possible in any form of baby container… I am referring to anything that prevents baby from moving freely, especially turning his head and looking around. Car seats, Capsules, bouncers, swings and slings all fall into this category, as do baby carriers. Now I am certainly not saying never carry your baby! Just advocating for as much floor time as baby will happily have.
- Aim for uncluttered space without the temptation to entertain with gadgets and gear. Less is more here. We want baby to work on noticing the world around him, not lie staring at the brightly coloured buzzy bee in front of his face. Instead of placing a play gym over his body, try laying baby on a blanket next to the window so he can gaze at the clouds and the trees. Next time you place him down there, lay him in the other direction so that he is encouraged to look the other way. How do you introduce toys? By simply placing simple, easy to grasp objects at or around eye level and just within reach – then, being patient!
- Stay close, observe, but don’t interfere. You (and therefore your reassuring presence) are baby’s security network. A well attached infant needs to know where their secure attachment is and when/where they will be able to access them again. Sit closely if you can and observe your baby. Let her know when you are going to head to the bathroom, put the jug on or check on another child etc.
- Offer support, but not manipulation. In the process of learning to roll and be on her tummy, she will likely get tired at times and feel stuck. Resist the temptation to help baby unless she shows distress. A little frustration is a good thing, however if you notice baby has grown tired or perhaps rolled onto her belly and feels stuck, simply offer to pick her up for a cuddle and a rest, before setting her back down again when she seems ready. We don’t need to coach her or show her how, just wait with patience as her body continues to grow more capable and strong.
- Enjoy this time!!! Your baby is finding new movement and skills daily, it is just the most incredible thing to observe. Worry less about entertaining and providing enough stimulation and sit back and observe the incredible little person in front of you as much as you can.
Is there such a thing as a good way to do tummy time? YES!!! Chest to chest cuddles are the ultimate way to connect, relax, bond, have skin on skin… the benefits here are endless.
I welcome your comments, questions and discussion on this one! It can be a loaded topic and often one fraught with guilt or fear. I also want to reiterate that if your baby is beyond this stage, and you implemented tummy time and the like – DO NOT waste a second feeling guilty or wishing you could go back. We are all doing our best with the knowledge we have at the time.