Medical experts in the Maritimes say they are shocked by the number of babies with flat or misshapen areas of their heads, a condition called plagiocephaly that can be caused by them spending too much time on their backs.

Physiotherapists at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax now see 10 to 20 referrals a month for babies with plagiocephaly.

“It can happen to anyone,” said Krista Sweet, a physiotherapist. “And most of the time, it happens before you even notice it.”

Maura Donovan

Social worker Maura Donovan of the IWK Health Centre in Halifax says half the babies she works with have misshapen heads. (CBC)

While the distortions are cosmetic and rarely cause a medical problem, left untreated, they can become permanent and affect the child later in life.

Sweet said the problem can be caused by a long list of factors, but generally the babies are spending too much time in the same position.

“Especially if you rest your head back against something that’s fairly solid, so, car seats that are used for something besides just being in a car, or too much time in a bouncy chair.”

Babies are most vulnerable as newborns, but the shape of their heads can change up to their first birthday.

Maura Donovan, a social worker who runs a volunteer home support program for new parents, is shocked by the number of plagiocephaly cases she sees.

“I’d say about half of the families in our program have a child with a flat spot or a head-turning preference. At least half,” she said.

“We are seeing a very high number of babies in our program who have either a flat spot on their head, or a preference of turning just to one side and really, very limited movement and ability to turn to the other side.”

Donovan said parents don't realize that long hours spent in unnatural positions can slowly deform a baby's skull.

“They’re not given any education or information. They have no idea that their child’s at risk of this.”

Treatment important

The numbers at the IWK are in line with a recent study conducted in Calgary — the first of its kind — that indicated 46 per cent of the heads of babies in Canada are misshapen.

Sweet said it’s important for parents to work with their babies as soon as they spot the condition.

“It’s a fair bit of work because you need to get the child repositioned frequently.”

She suggests parents ensure their children spend time on their stomach when they’re awake. It also helps when parents hold babies facing them or carry them in a sling.

Sweet stressed it is still important for children to sleep on their backs to help prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

“But when they’re awake, and you’re in the room and monitoring what they’re doing and playing with them, it’s really important to get them on their belly,” she said. “Not just for their head shape, but also for their overall development.”

The IWK Health Centre says new parents looking for more information can talk to a public health nurse or their family doctors.