In rare cases, a baby’s head can become misshapen due to a condition called craniosynostosis. This is a serious condition that can lead to issues with brain development if not corrected.
The skull is comprised of several different bones and the junction between bones is called sutures. Brain growth drives skull growth and the brain exponentially grows during the first two years of life. Sutures detect stretch from brain growth and create new bone formation.
“The skull is soft and moldable during the first year of life,” said Dr. Brad Morrow, a pediatric plastic and reconstructive surgeon with Marshfield Children’s. “If a baby has a tendency to look in one direction after birth, then the back of the head can become flat and change the shape of the skull. This is not a pathologic process and will not cause developmental issue. The head shape will likely resolve spontaneously but can require a helmet to mold the shape.”
While a misshapen head due to laying on one side is not cause for alarm, a misshapen head due to craniosynostosis can be a serious condition.
What is craniosynostosis?
At the time of birth or shortly after, a suture may prematurely fuse which can give the head a characteristic shape and prevent normal skull growth.
Around the age of two, the baby’s sutures begin to harden and the skull becomes one bone. Craniosynostosis is caused when the sutures begin to harden too early. This can stop the brain and skull from growing, which impacts development.
“Premature closure of the sutures may also cause pressure inside the head to increase and the skull or facial bones to change from a normal, symmetrical appearance,” Dr. Morrow said.
Signs of craniosynostosis include:
- A misshapen head
- No soft spot on the baby’s head
- Consistent fussiness, vomiting or headaches following sleep
- A firm, raised edge on the baby’s head
- Limited growth in the baby’s head size
In most babies, the cause of craniosynostosis is unknown. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently studying the condition. The CDC is finding it is often caused by a genetic disorder and other environmental factors.
“It is important for the child with craniosynostosis and their family members to be examined carefully for signs of an inherited genetic disorder, such as limb defects, ear abnormalities or heart defects,” Dr. Morrow said.
How to treat
Surgery is the only treatment for craniosynostosis. The surgery releases the pressure on the brain, which allows it to grow properly. A surgeon typically performs the surgery during the first year of a baby’s life. The procedure should be performed by a surgeon that is specially-trained to provide the surgery.
“Most surgeons that treat craniosynostosis have special training called fellowships,” Dr. Morrow said. “For example, I completed my fellowship in craniofacial surgery at the Craniofacial Center in Dallas.”
Most cases of craniosynostotis are detected by a baby’s pediatrician through head measurements and a physical evaluation. For more information about craniosynostosis, talk to your child’s pediatrician.