Health educationists advise parents that the most important measure they can take to avoid sudden infant death syndrome is to ensure that babies sleep on their backs - but new research has uncovered a hidden problem. Medical researchers in the United States have found a big increase in plagiocephaly, asymmetric head growth, since the American "back to sleep" campaign was launched five years years ago.
Although the campaign was successful, resulting in a 30 per cent decrease in cot deaths, John Graham, director of the Craniofacial Clinic at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, said the prevalence of misshapen heads among babies has jumped fivefold during this period, from an estimated 1 in 300 live births in 1994 to 1 in 60 births today.
"When infants sleep in one position, there is a consistent pressure on their soft and forming skull, which can result in deformation of the head," Dr Graham said.
"Unfortunately, many care providers are unaware of the symptoms and inappropriately reassure parents that the child will grow out of it. Left untreated [it] can result in permanent distortion of the head as well as persistent facial asymmetry," he said.
Babies with the condition usually suffer from shortened or tightened neck muscles,which cause them to tilt their heads towards the tight side, resulting in the development of a preferred resting position. When babies have tightened neck muscles, which usually begin to develop in the limited space of the womb, they are more likely to develop misshapen heads if they are consistently placed into one sleeping position, the doctors believe.
Dr Graham said the disorder is relatively simple to treat provided the symptoms are recognised early enough in the child's development when corrective action is most effective.
Each year, his clinic treats between 250 and 300 babies with a course of neck massage and stretching. The worst-affected babies are given special helmets to wear when they sleep.
Parents are advised to vary a baby's sleeping position so the infant does not always rest on the flattened part of the skull. But Dr Graham stressed: "It is important to put babies to sleep on their backs because this prevents death from suffocation."Reuse content