Children's Health and Wellness

Babies Need 'Tummy Time'

Nearly 15 years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) first recommended that parents put their babies to sleep on their back. That simple piece of advice cut the death rate from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by more than half. An unexpected result has occurred, however: flattened heads.

The flattening — a result of babies' spending so much time on their back — most often occurs on the back of the infant's head and is usually more pronounced on one side. This flattening may broaden the head and face. In severe cases, the flattening may push forward 1 side of the face, creating an asymmetrical appearance.

No one's sure how common flat heads are. Statistics vary a great deal, from 1 in 5 cases for a mild form to 1 in 500 to 600 cases, the AAP says. But health care providers have seen a significant increase in flat heads in the past decade, says a 2003 article in the journal Pediatrics.

To avoid a flat head — the medically known as deformational plagiocephaly or positional plagiocephaly — try these tips:

  • Parents should still place babies on their back for sleep.

  • When babies are awake, put them on their tummy for a while. This eases pressure on the back of the head and helps babies build shoulder and neck strength.

  • Alternate which direction you place your child in the crib each night. Your child will then alternate which direction he or she looks out of the crib.

  • Don't hang objects above your child's head, put them to the sides of the crib so he or she will turn his or her head to look at them. 

  • Dress you child in clothes that allow for freedom of movement. 

  • Alternate sides if you bottle-feed your child. 

  • Minimize the use of car seats when not traveling in the car, as well as other types of seats, such as bouncers, in which babies are positioned on their backs.

  • Pick up your child often. The more time your child is held in your arms, the less time he or she is lying down with pressure to the head.

  • If your child develops a flat spot on his or her head, see your health care provider.

Print Source: Prevention and Management of Positional Skull Deformities in Infants. Laughlin, J. Pediatrics. 2011, is. 128, ed. 6, pp. 1236-41.
Print Source: Prevention of deformational plagiocephaly in neonates. Cavalier, A. Early Human Development. 2011, is. 87, ed. 8, pp. 537-43.
Print Source: SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Expansion of Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment. Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Pediatrics. 2011, is. 128, ed. 5, pp. 1030-39.
Online Source: Back to Sleep, Tummy to Play, American Academy of Pediatrics http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/sleep/Pages/Back-to-Sleep-Tummy-to-Play.aspx
Author: Beans, Bruce E.
Author: McIver, Steve
Online Editor: Geller, Arlene
Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 12/6/2013
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