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Helmets barely Work for Babies with “Flat Head” Syndrome

Update Date: May 02, 2014 01:22 PM EDT

"Flat head" syndrome is a condition that occurs when a baby's skull gets flattened after repeatedly sleeping on their backs. Roughly 20 percent of infants under six-months-old will develop this condition. Since sleeping on one's back can greatly reduce risk of sudden infant death syndrome, pediatricians are not going to stop recommending this sleeping position, which is why researchers have developed ways of preventing it. One popular method that parents often turn to is a pricey, customized helmet. However, according to a new study, these helmets are not effective in improving an infant's skull shape.

For this study, the researchers headed by Renske M. van Wijk from the University of Twente in the Netherlands recruited 84 babies between the ages of five to six-months. 42 of the babies had misshapen skulls and were assigned to the customized helmet group. The remaining 42 infants had similar skull deformities but received no treatments. The researchers did not include any infants with severe deformities.

In the experimental group, infants wore the helmets for 23 hours each day for six months. The researchers examined the infants' skulls from both groups after two years. The researchers noted that 25.6 percent of the infants in the experimental group and 22.5 percent of the infants in the control group made a full recovery. They were not able to differentiate between the infants who received the helmets and the infants who did not.

They also found that the helmet group reported more side effects. 96 percent complained of skin irritation, 76 percent had an unpleasant smell, 71 percent reported sweating and 33 percent experienced pain. 77 percent of mothers complained that the helmets negatively impacted their cuddling time. When the researchers asked parents to rate their satisfaction, they found that the average score for mothers in the helmet group was 4.6 out of 5. In the control group, the average satisfaction score was 4.4 out of 5.

"Based on the effectiveness of helmet therapy, and the high prevalence of side effects and high costs, we discourage the use of a helmet as a standard treatment for healthy infants with moderate to severe skull deformation," concluded van Wijk reported in Philly.

"There are definitely cases of infants with mild to moderate skull deformation who are treated with helmet therapy, and this study confirms and reaffirms that this is not necessary," added Dr. James J. Laughlin reported by the New York Times.

The findings suggest that families do not have to spend $1,300 to $3,000 on helmet treatments that are not going to fix small deformities. Despite this study's conclusion, some experts believe that the study did not account for how the helmets were fitted. Around 75 percent of the mothers in the study reported that the helmets they received shifted or rotated a lot while sitting on their infants' heads.

"The value of this research is fully reliant upon the quality of the fit," said James Campbell, the vice president of the American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association, a trade group.

Other doctors and experts are worried that this study's findings could jeopardize insurance policies. They fear that companies could argue that these helmets are ineffective and therefore, will no longer be covered.

The study, "Helmet therapy in infants with positional skull deformation: randomized controlled trial," was published in the British Medical Journal.

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