A version of this story was originally published on December 5, 2018. It has been updated.
That was fun.
The combination of his early arrival (and even softer head than a full-term newborn) and his period of “stuckness" resulted in him being born with a flat head, also known as plagiocephaly. We didn't know it at the time, but he was also born with torticollis, which is a stiff neck muscle. It meant he could only turn his head to one side.
Because we are avid rule-abiders in this house, we followed all the safe sleeping guidelines. We put bubs to bed on his back for every sleep and nap. So slowly over the first weeks of his life, his soft little head pressing down on his firm little mattress got progressively flatter and flatter—not only on the back, but on the one side that his head naturally turned toward.
Related: Baby Sleep Guides & Schedules
It now turned this way not only because of his stiff neck (we'd started doing stretches, so that was improving), but also then because of the flat spot. Think of it as cutting a segment out of an orange—the orange is always going to roll toward the flat surface and stay there.
I am a Googler (aren't all new parents?), so I was pretty reassured when I saw that flat spots were pretty common and that plagiocephaly is the most common craniofacial problem today (partly due to the safe sleep guidelines—though I am definitely not advocating going against the guidelines).
When I started attending a community “Mother's Group," they covered plagiocephaly. This was also reassuring, as a few other mums in the group raised their hands with similar concerns to me. So I was feeling pretty good until the midwife caught sight of the side of my son's head while we were having tea and biscuits after the meeting and said, “that's actually a really remarkable case," turning his head this way and that. Remarkable, really? I appreciated her candor, but I definitely started worrying again then.
She gave me a card of an orthopedist who could assess my son and perhaps prescribe a plagiocephaly helmet.
The helmet's purpose is to alleviate pressure from the flat spots, allowing the skull to grow into the spaces provided inside the helmet—they make a cast of your baby's head first, so the spaces in the helmet match the flat spots in your baby's head.
She said she wasn't supposed to give out the contact information, because some doctors in our area did not agree with the helmets and thought they were a waste of time and money (they thought the problem would fix itself with time). I'll never know, because my anxious personality propelled me toward this orthopedist's office as fast as my legs could take me (not that fast actually, as I was also dragging along a 4-month-old).
The orthopedist certainly did prescribe a helmet. He made the cast right there during the first appointment, and I've made a list of things to expect if you, too, find yourself in the position of being prescribed one for your bundle of joy.
1. They are not cheap, even considering they are mostly foam
Our helmet set us back $500. I guess this is why some doctors will advise against them if they do feel the problem will correct itself in time. I felt it was worth it for us, for the peace of mind of knowing we were doing everything we could at the time. Also, this cost included all follow-up appointments and adjustments to the helmet every month (as his head changed shape) so it is actually pretty reasonable when you look at it like that.
2. It is not about cosmetics
You may think it is a little over the top for me to have gotten so worked up about the fact that my baby would have a bit of a flat head. My main concerns were not cosmetic (though of course I don't want him to look funny!). I was thinking about factors like not being able to wear glasses comfortably (both hubby and I do, so it is pretty likely he will need them), or even sunglasses. Or not being able to wear safety helmets or hard hats without having specially made ones. This may not be an issue if the flat spot was just on the back, but because his head was asymmetrical (the flatness was on the back and one side) it would have been.
3. They are not as uncomfortable as they look
I have to go by observation on this one, because my 4-month-old didn't actually turn to me and say "Hey, this isn't so bad." He wore his helmet 23 hours a day. It was only off to clean it and to give him a bath. He slept in it, and his sleep did not change or regress. He was a happy, giggly baby, and didn't really even seem to have a major adjustment period to it. It was really, truly, so fine. And when he got it off, he adjusted well to that too.
4. The earlier the better
The earlier the helmet is on, the shorter time period it needs to be on and the more effective it is. My son was in his helmet from 4 months old until about 8 months old. This is around the earliest it can go on. Helmets are believed to work best between the ages of 5 months and 8 months.
There was another young boy who came to the office who had gotten his helmet on much later, and it was on for ages longer and didn't end up working as well. This is apparently to do with how quickly the skull bones fuse together and the head being more malleable at an earlier age.
5. You may get some looks
Everywhere I went during the months of the helmet, I felt like I was being stared at. I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, and assume they were staring because it looks so damn cute (it really does). They were also probably wondering what it was for, as the helmets aren't super common where I live. Strangers were nice to me—they offered to let me go first in queues, asked how I was doing, or asked to carry things for me.
Sometimes people would ask what was "wrong" with my son. My usual answer was that "it's just on to reshape his wonky head." I would play it cool, but sometimes my feelings were quite hurt when they said that. Some people told me that they thought my son had a cognitive disability or a developmental disorder and it was on for protection (for head banging). I'll admit, it made me feel a bit self-conscious.
6. You do miss the unrestricted snuggles and nuzzling against your baby's head
This was the main thing I was excited for when I learned he could take his helmet off—the head nuzzles! Until then, we did lots of head nuzzling at bath-time, and at other times we snuggled him through the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of a hard block of foam on your face. He still felt cozy, warm, and snuggly, I'm sure. It was just us who were a tad more uncomfortable. Worth it!
7. If you don't clean the helmet every day, it will smell
All you have to do is wipe it down using rubbing alcohol and a cotton wool ball once a day (before bath time, so it has that half hour to dry before he gets back into it). Leave it for a day and suffer the stench.
8. You will get creative with tummy time
Even though the helmet is on, which relieves the pressure off the flat spots, we are still told to pay attention to positioning. So, stretches to help move his heads both ways, repositioning his head on the mattress, and tummy time—lots of tummy time!
If your child doesn't like tummy time, this can be a challenge. We had to think of lots of ways to make it fun—think plastic sandwich bags filled with paint for him to squish, mirrors, music, blow up balls, and lying down with him making funny faces. It is actually quite fun to think of ways to extend the time they spend on their belly. And you get to lie down for a minute, too.
9. You will miss it when it's gone—a little
This is similar to when you see someone you are close to without their glasses on. It just doesn't look like "them" for a while, as you get used to its absence. Sure, we saw the "real him" every night at bath time, but he always looked just a little bit naked (that's a bad example because he was in the bath, but you get the idea). It probably took a good two weeks for us to not feel like something was "missing."
10. It isn't so bad
It's just a few months, which pass by in the blink of an eye in infancy. It's a bit of a cost, but that includes everything. The babies aren't affected by it physically or emotionally, and it really doesn't affect their mood or sleep or anything (at least in our experience, and in talking to other helmet parents).
The best part: It worked! My son now has a perfectly symmetrical, round head. He is none the worse for wear—better, even.