Babies have been developing flat heads from sleeping on their backs as recommended, and the long-term effects may be more than cosmetic, a Calgary researcher says.

Since 1999, Canadian doctors have recommended infants sleep on their backs in cribs, and not on their stomachs, to prevent sudden infant death syndrome. But infants who sleep on their backs, and in bouncy chairs and car seats, often develop flattened heads on one side.

For years, the flattening condition, formally known as plagiocephaly, has been considered a cosmetic problem, but this thinking is starting to change.

"There are some beginning studies that indicate that babies with plagiocephaly tend to have learning difficulties later on in school, and that to me is something that probably we need to explore," said University of Calgary PhD student Aliyah Mawji, who is also a registered nurse.

To that end, Mawji is studying 476 babies, about 40 per cent of whom exhibit a flattened head.

In the meantime, therapists say parents can prevent the condition by:

  • Changing their babies' head positions.
  • Providing more tummy time.
  • Not letting babies sleep much in bouncy chairs or car seats.

Although many parents put their babies in bouncy chairs while they prepare dinner or do other tasks, therapists suggest limiting the practice to no more than 15 minutes at a time a couple of times a day.

Mother Alison Searle said her son Kash's flat head was noticeable early on. Kash, now 16 months old, sports a helmet 23 hours a day to help correct the condition. The flattening was caused by a number of things, including his typically soft newborn skull and his weak neck muscles, which forced his head to the left side when he slept.

"It was his left side he always laid on," Searle recalled in an interview with CBC News. "He favoured it. We would lay him on the other side and he would fight to roll on the other side."

She said it's been a long and expensive road to try to reshape Kash's head. Physiotherapy and changing his sleep patterns didn't work, said Searle, who advises parents to do what they can to prevent flattening.