When our little guy was about 5 months old, I noticed that part of his head, in the back, was looking suspiciously flat.
It was just on the right side. Nothing terribly noticeable buuuut… enough that I was concerned.
This was my sweet beautiful baby boy, and I started to feel all of the guilt and worry that mamas are prone to.
So, I scheduled an appointment with our pediatrician, to get a professional opinion.
It turns out our kiddo had a condition called plagiocephaly.
Here are some pictures of him, getting his head scanned and measured. Isn’t he cute?
Full disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, so please keep that in mind. But here’s a little bit of what I learned during the diagnosis, as I understood it.
Plagiocephaly… what’s that?
There are basically three types of “flat head syndrome:” plagiocephaly, brachycephaly, and scaphocephaly. You can google all about the differences. But for our kiddo, we got the run-down on plagiocephaly.
Plagiocephaly is when your baby has kind of a parallelogram shaped head. So, there’s a flattened portion on one side of the head in the back, and on that same side, in the front, there’s usually a part that bulges forward. One ear may sit further forward on the head too. And the more severe the case, the more likelihood for asymmetry of facial features.
This is the earliest picture I can find, from when I first noticed the flatness. You can see how the back of his side isn’t totally round, it has a straight-flat line on one side.
Usually, a misshapen head isn’t cause for medical concern. So, that’s great!
There were some studies I found that showed a possible correlation between untreated plagiocephaly and cognitive, developmental, and other issues later in life, but nothing super clear and set as fact. (Here‘s an article with more info. But again, I’m not a doctor- please do your own thorough research.)
Cranial asymmetry could also mean that your child needs to have custom sport helmets or eye glasses made later in life, to accommodate the nonuniform shape of his head. A hassle, but again, not the end of the world.
Really, my biggest concern with the diagnosis of plagiocephaly was just that my baby boy would have a funny-shaped head.
I know looks aren’t everything, but it made me cry to think that he might be teased or feel self-conscious later on because I didn’t do anything about his plagiocephaly now, while I had the chance, when his skull was soft and moldable. You know what I mean?
I felt a little reassured by the fact that flat head syndrome has several causes, not just the one conclusion that most people jump to – “You don’t hold your baby enough. You must leave him laying on his back all day long.” Trust me, our baby boy was held SO much, by us and all of his doting extended family, so there was no way that was the cause.
I found out that flat head syndrome can be the result of anything from development in the womb (isn’t that crazy?) to how much he lays on his back (it’s pretty common too with preemie babies that need to spend extended time in the NICU) to torticollis (when the neck muscles are a little stronger on one side than the other) to the baby’s sleeping preference. (Read more here)
Also, the number of flat head syndrome cases has increased since the back-to-sleep campaign – but the number of SIDS cases has gone down, so that’s super important to note! (Article linked here)
Turns out, our kiddo had mild torticollis, and honestly, I think he just really preferred tilting his head to one side while he napped. Like it was more comfy or something. (But really, does it matter what the reason was? I knew I wasn’t a bad mom- it’s just sometimes, that silly illogical kind of guilt can really get to me.)
Great, we know what plagiocephaly is… so, now what?
Anyways, we had a couple of options. We could do nothing and see if the plagiocephaly corrected itself naturally. We could do some major work with repositioning and physical therapy to help the torticollis, and hope that would correct the asymmetry. Or we could start on baby cranial helmet therapy.
We had already been doing a few weeks of repositioning, and continued doing that after the diagnosis, but unfortunately, we weren’t seeing much change. It gradually got a little worse, oddly enough. And the only time he was laying down was literally for sleeping, I was so paranoid about making things worse. The torticollis wasn’t severe enough to make a big difference. And, the final option- our insurance covered a baby cranial helmet, so we decided to give it a go.
It took a while for me to come to terms with having a helmet baby. My little boy’s head was just so kissable, and I hated covering up his cute fuzzy hair. But ultimately, we felt it was best, and we knew it would only be a couple of months.
After making the decision to get a cranial helmet for our baby, I started to prep.
A couple of my own considerations:
- STARbands cover more of the head than DOC bands, so some people think they’re less breathable (but we just asked our doctor to drill a couple of extra holes in the back to help with that). And it means you don’t get to see as much of that cute noggin. So sad.
- There’s not a major difference in weight, even though the STARband is slightly bigger.
- Kids don’t usually outgrow their STARbands during the treatment time. Whereas, with DOC bands, the baby will sometimes outgrow the first one and need to have a second band made.
My choice came down to the fact that I didn’t want to have to worry about insurance not covering a second helmet. So, that was the main factor in choosing a clinic and helmet model. (I also read a ton of reviews for the clinics in my area, just to get a feel for patient satisfaction.)
Decorating the helmet
Next, I thought it would make the situation a little less sad to transform that medical device into a cute accessory. (While keeping the medical integrity intact, of course)
I found a couple of pictures of decorated baby helmets online and sent my favorite design to our local high school art teacher, to ask if he could paint the helmet to look like a leather aviator helmet. (See more of his awesome artwork here)
Guys. He absolutely nailed it!
- Other artists I found who specialize in painting cranial helmets are Lazardo Art and Happier Helmets. They do amazingly beautiful work. I just didn’t want to have to send the helmet in the mail and risk anything happening to it, or delay the treatment. So, I’m happy we found someone local to work with.
- Happier Helmets also has some helpful tutorials on Youtube– how to prep, paint, and seal a design on a cranial helmet. I sent those videos over to our art teacher, since this was his first time working in that medium. I’ve heard of many parents who paint a design themselves, so those tutorials would have come in handy if I’d chosen to go that route too (honestly, I did not trust myself with that endeavor though! It was much easier to hand it off to someone who actually got a degree in art).
- You can also find stickers, vinyl, and wraps for a baby cranial helmet on Etsy.com, blingyourband.com, and itsbabbleworthy.com. Some motor dealerships will even wrap baby helmets.
- A lot of helmet companies will let you choose out a fun pattern, but their selection is obviously limited, and sometimes when the pattern is stretched onto the helmet to cover it, the pattern ends up skewed. So, that was a consideration that ultimately ruled it out for me.
- For baby girls, I’ve seen a lot of people that choose a simple pink or blue color and then add Velcro or clips to attach bows directly to the helmet. I thought that was clever. Here’s a link I found for a clip on bow sticker, if you want to do that.
So, yeah, tons and tons of options if you want to decorate your baby’s helmet. It’s definitely not a necessity, but I loved having a cute design since our kiddo would be wearing it fulltime for several months.
Here’s what our baby’s helmet looked like before it’s cosmetic upgrade. It was cute, but I’m so glad we decided to pay a little extra for the aviator design.
We received so many compliments for our baby boy, and it felt more like he was wearing a fun hat than just a medical device.
Wearing the Helmet
When he received his helmet, I thought there would be so much maintenance and extra care involved. But it turned out to be pretty simple. We quickly got into a routine, and it was smooth sailing for the 4 months that he wore a helmet.
For the first few days, our doctor had us on a wearing schedule that gradually increased the time of wear.
- We started out with baby wearing his helmet for an hour on and an hour off throughout the day. And no helmet at naps or bedtime.
- Then, the next day, he would wear it for 2 hours on and 1 hour off.
- As the wearing time increased, we just needed to check his head and make sure there were no signs of irritation.
- Eventually, he got to the point of wearing his helmet for 23 hours of the day, with only 1 hour of break.
So, our baby boy became a full time helmet-wearer.
I thought he would be so uncomfortable during sleep times, but he didn’t seem phased by it at all. When he was awake, it took a little getting used to, mostly because he hated wearing hats or having anything on his head. But after two or three days, he hardly noticed the helmet, which was also surprising. And if he did notice it, he’d tug at it a little bit, and we would just gently pull his hands away and redirect his attention.
Whenever we’d go swimming or be outside in the heat for a long time, baby boy wouldn’t have to wear his helmet then. (The helmet is Not waterproof, and wearing a helmet in direct sunlight and high temperatures can obviously cause overheating for baby.)
The more time that the helmet was off his head, the more time his head wasn’t being shaped. But, if it was only for a few hours, we didn’t freak out. Sometimes outdoor family activities took priority- we didn’t want our sweet kiddo missing out on the fun! And we would always put the helmet right back on when we got home.
Cleaning the helmet and our baby’s head
Cleaning the helmet was pretty simple. During the helmet breaks, we used alcohol and a rag to just give it a good rub-down on the inside foam part.
I’d heard some people suggest leaving the helmet out in the sun, to help reduce the stink. I tried that once, but I forgot that our helmet was painted and had a layer of mod podge, so being in the direct heat for long caused the paint to start sticking and peel. Oops! (I just quickly pressed the paint layer back into place, and luckily the design wasn’t ruined.) Obviously, that wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t decorated, and maybe the sun method really does do wonders. But honestly, the smell wasn’t so horrible as long as I stayed on top of the daily alcohol scrub.
During our kiddo’s breaks, he would either get a full bath or simply have his head washed over a sink. For the stinkiness, I would gently wash and rinse his head thoroughly 2-3 times. Wash, rinse, repeat, in the same sitting. It seemed to do the trick. (Lotion can cause rashes once the helmet is back on, so I never did that.) I know some people would give their helmet baby a full bath every single day, but if I was only going to get one hour to kiss that cute head and let him experience freedom from his helmet, I didn’t want the entire hour to be him sitting in a bathtub.
Over the four months, there were a couple of times when we noticed a red spot or small irritation. Our doctor was awesome, and we could text pictures to him, to get his advice. He would usually tell us to either lengthen the break times a bit, or keep the helmet off and come into the office the next day for an adjustment. So, it wasn’t ever a big deal. It usually just meant that baby had grown into the helmet and needed an adjustment. (I think for the adjustments, our doctor would shave out a part of the inside foam to give his head more room, but don’t quote me on that.)
This picture shows the worst it ever got, and even this irritation didn’t seem to hurt him. We just removed the helmet and waited for an adjustment the next day. (Also, it looks like his hair rubbed off in that spot from wearing the helmet, but I never actually noticed any hair loss during the four month treatment. His hair just happened to be thinner/lighter on that spot.)
His favorite part of adjustment/measurement appointments was this light-up toy they used, to help him hold still and focus on one spot. The appointments were usually quick and easy- the doctor would either scan his head for a measurement or use a type of ruler to check lengths. And if the appointment was only for an adjustment, it meant we didn’t even do measurements. Instead, our doctor would just fix the helmet to give baby’s head some extra room, and then we’d be on our way.
Helmet Baby Community
One thing that really helped me during the process of our little guy wearing a baby cranial helmet was being in a Facebook group for plagiocephaly. It was informative to hear the perspective of other moms who were going through the same thing with their kids.
Ultimately, the authority on medical questions went to our doctor, but it was nice to hear some day-to-day tips from other moms. And it was great to have the reassurance of a community that knows what you’re going through, whether it’s wondering how to get rid of that stinky smell or deal with the occasional judgment of neighbors (Luckily, everyone we encountered was super nice though! I never heard a negative comment or judgy remark about our helmet baby.) So, I really appreciated finding that community support!
I also made a post on my personal Facebook page at the beginning of his helmet-wearing journey, explaining what it was for. A lot of people have no clue why babies wear cranial helmets, and others think it’s to cushion their heads when they’re learning to walk or crawl and fall down. I felt like it was a good idea to just get it out in the open and give a quick explanation of plagiocephaly. Rather than face tons of questions from family and friends later and have to keep repeating the information over and over. And also, then it wasn’t like a taboo topic or anything. Totally not necessary to make the post, but helpful in our personal experience.
And that was it! Our Baby’s Helmet Journey!
After four months, our baby boy went from having a moderate case of plagiocephaly to a beautiful round little noggin! The time flew by, and it was even a little bittersweet to take the helmet off for good. He really rocked that aviator look! We were sure to get lots of cute pictures and celebrate the progress.
A baby cranial helmet may not be the best choice for everyone with a plagiocephaly diagnosis, but we were glad to have that option. Every parent has to make the call for their own family and situation.
In our helmet journey, there were some sad moments at the beginning and adjustments to our routine. But overall, I can look back and say that we have no regrets. And I sure love kissing my baby’s sweet head again post-helmet, knowing that we did what we felt was best for his future.
So, there you have it. As many details as I can remember about our baby boy’s plagiocephaly and baby cranial helmet experience.
I hope this is helpful to someone, and wish you luck if you face a similar road!