Are baby bouncers and car seats to blame for the rise in Flat Head Syndrome
00:36 GMT, 12 April 2012
At bath-time, toddler Evie Snedker giggles mischievously as she splashes her older sister Abbie. Her hair’s all wet and so is the bathroom floor. But as this is the only hour of the day when the 17-month-old’s head isn’t encased inside a specially-designed helmet, mum Annmarie is happy to let her enjoy herself.
Once she’s dry, though, and in her pyjamas, the plastic-and-foam helmet goes back on.
Evie has a condition known as ‘Flat Head Syndrome’, so she has been wearing this contraption 23 hours a day since a few weeks before her first birthday. And there’s still another month to go.
Drastic treatment: Evie in her helmet with her mother Annmarie
‘She doesn’t actually mind it any more,’ stresses her mother Annmarie Snedker, 37, of Edlington, near Doncaster. ‘In fact, she cries when I take it off for bath-time. All of us are used to it now.
‘But people do tend to stare when we go out and children have said some cruel things.’
Soon, though, the sight of tiny helmet-wearers like Evie may not be such a rarity. For experts say there has been an epidemic of such cases in recent years — and modern parenting habits may be to blame.
The rise of Flat Head Syndrome has already been directly linked to the campaign for children to sleep on their backs rather than their fronts.
Although this has dramatically reduced the incidence of cot death, it has also meant that babies spend much more time face up than they did a generation ago — putting more pressure on their developing skulls.
'Nobody told me my daughter could be at risk and it was a shock when I first noticed her head was becoming flat'
When babies lie on their front, they lift their heads slightly off the floor, using their arm muscles, whereas when they lie on their backs, the full weight of their heads rests on the back of their skulls.
Worryingly, experts are asking whether these skull deformities could also be down to the lifestyle of today’s busy parents who, for the sake of convenience, rarely take their children out of their prams, cribs, or car seats, meaning the baby’s head rests against a surface for long periods of time.
In the U.S., researchers have identified a generation of what they call ‘container babies’ who spend up to eight hours a day being carried around in car seats and other devices such as bouncy seats and rockers.
In the UK, childcare experts are calling these children ‘bucket babies’ and are urging parents to restrict the use of plastic seats.
Of course, to the army of mothers who are juggling children with work and are often on the move, baby carriers can seem invaluable. Car seats are proving more popular than prams and sales of other types of baby seats are booming.
Evie’s mother, Annmarie, confesses that, like many mothers, she often put her daughter in either a car seat or a baby bouncer for hours at a time — which meant her head was usually resting against something.
Evie’s case is typical of the children Kate Chauhan — an orthotist or specialist who uses devices to treat deformities — sees at the Steeper Clinic in Kingston upon Thames.
‘We are definitely seeing more and more children developing Flat Head Syndrome,’ she says. ‘And I definitely think that a reliance on car seats plays a part in this.
‘The recommended limit for car seat use is meant to be for an hour or two, but they are often used for far longer. We treated one child who was regularly going on long car journeys.’
To blame The lives of busy mums means babies may be in car seats for longer than they should be (posed by models)
Kate is adamant that Flat Head Syndrome — medically known as positional plagiocephaly or brachycephaly, depending on where the flatness occurs — is not just a cosmetic condition.
‘It depends on the severity but if there is a big shift, it can push the face forward and this can mean the ears are out of alignment,’ she says. ‘This can result in a higher incidence of ear infections. There are also links between plagiocephaly and esotropia — or wandering eye.’
Kate and her colleagues still recommend that infants are put to sleep on their backs, but she says it is crucial to compensate for this by giving babies plenty of floor play — and, when they are old enough, time on their tummy — during the day to give the skull the freedom to grow normally.
Internet forums have seen fierce debate about who is really to blame for the rise in babies with Flat Head Syndrome — with some pointing the finger at ‘lazy parenting’.
Recent research from America found that up to 48 per cent of babies under the age of one developed misshapen skulls
‘If you can’t spend more time with your child in your arms, then you only have yourself to blame,’ writes one angry mother.
Annmarie says that, in her case, nothing could be further from the truth and that the message about not leaving children in their seats and rockers is not getting through.
‘I did everything I was advised to do,’ she says. ‘I put my daughter to sleep on her back, so that she wasn’t at risk from cot death. I sometimes left her in the car seat when she was small, but no more than other mums do.
‘Nobody told me my daughter could be at risk and it was a shock when I first noticed her head was becoming flat when she was between four and five months old.’
‘I had one of those car seats that plugs into a pushchair so I would move her from car to pram if she was asleep.
‘I did try and give her tummy time when we were at home, but she used to scream whenever I put her on her belly so I tended to put her in a baby bouncer instead. But that also meant her head was resting against something.’
When Annmarie pointed out the deformity to her GP, she was referred to a paediatrician — only to be told her daughter’s head shape would correct itself.
/04/11/article-2128383-0024B2F100000258-315_468x450.jpg” width=”468″ height=”450″ alt=”Let them out: Many mums keep their babies in portable car seats while they go to cafes and visit friends thinking they will be more comfortable – but it could in fact increase their risk of getting Flat Head Syndrome (posed by models)” class=”blkBorder” />
Let them out: Many mums keep their babies in portable car seats while they go to cafes and visit friends thinking they will be more comfortable – but it could in fact increase their risk of getting Flat Head Syndrome (posed by models)
She decided to seek private treatment for Evie, which has cost her and her partner Simon Crooks, 38, a duty team leader for a railway company, 2,000.
‘We have done this so Evie has a good start in life,’ says Annmarie. ‘If children snigger now because she wears a helmet, she would be even more of a target for bullying later on if she had a weird-shaped head.’
Annmarie is now campaigning for the corrective helmets to be available on the NHS. Despite being told that Flat Head Syndrome is only a cosmetic issue, Annmarie says her daughter has problems with her eyesight and she believes this is linked to the fact her head shape is distorted.
Evie has also lagged behind with other developmental landmarks such as crawling and, at 17 months old, she is not walking. Annmarie now regrets the fact that she relied on car seats and rockers when Evie was small.
‘Parents today think they need a selection of different seats for their baby. They don’t,’ says Penny Greenland, a movement specialist and director of Jabadao, an organisation which encourages physical activity in children.
‘A car seat is a necessity for car journeys, but when a baby is at home or at a friend’s, all you need is a soft, snugly rug on the floor.’
'Car seats are necessary, but they are not designed to be the place a baby spends most of the day'
She adds: ‘Babies spend too much time curled in a C-shape in car seats and rockers when their body needs to be flat so that it can start to adapt for walking later on.
‘Every bit of the body is affected if a baby is kept in a sedentary position. That child may get niggles later — lower back problems, knee problems — when they start to play sport.
‘Restricting early movement has an impact on how the eyes develop and this can affect reading and writing, because the eyes can’t grasp what is on the page. They also miss out on sensory experiences and touch.
‘We want to attempt to reverse the tide, as we are seeing more of these borderline developmental delays in school children and it does go back to those early months.’
Mother-of-three Anne McEwan, 33, who runs parenting forum Natural Mamas, advocates ‘babywearing’ as a solution for busy parents who need their baby to be more portable. This literally involves wearing a baby close to the body in a soft fabric sling.
‘I’ve carried all my children in slings, using a car seat only when we are in the car,’ says Anne, who lives in Swaffham, Norfolk, with her children Ben, seven, Ruben, five, and Eleanor, 17 months.
‘I believe it encourages a closeness you just wouldn’t get otherwise. The child can see what you are doing and get involved or they can switch off and fall asleep.
‘Meanwhile, you have your hands free so you can get on with other things. Car seats are necessary, but they are not designed to be the place a baby spends most of the day.’