What is plagiocephaly?

Plagiocephaly (sometimes called deformational plagiocephaly or positional plagiocephaly) is a very common, very treatable disorder. It causes a baby’s head to have a flattened appearance.

Plagiocephaly develops when an infant’s soft skull becomes flattened in one area, due to repeated pressure on one part of the head. Many babies develop plagiocephaly by sleeping regularly in one position. This condition occurs more often in premature infants whose skulls are especially pliable.

Treatment for plagiocephaly usually includes special exercises, varying sleep position or wearing corrective headbands or using molding cups.

Children with plagiocephaly often see a plastic surgeon or neurosurgeon to make sure they do not have craniosynostosis. Craniosynostosis is when the skull bones meld together and create an abnormal head shape that can look like plagiocephaly. However, unlike plagiocephaly, craniosynostosis requires surgery.

What are the symptoms of plagiocephaly?

Plagiocephaly causes a flattened appearance on one side of a baby’s head. This is typically the only symptom; it is not painful and does not affect the baby’s day-to-day life or abilities.

What are the causes of plagiocephaly?

Most babies develop plagiocephaly by sleeping regularly in one position. Studies show that 20 to 25 percent of infants who sleep on their back develop some degree of plagiocephaly. 

Other causes of plagiocephaly include:

  • Position in the womb. Because infants’ skulls are so soft, they are often a bit misshapen from the normal birthing process, but this does not cause plagiocephaly. Babies who are part of a multiple birth or who have a mother with a small uterus may be especially likely to have plagiocephaly.
  • Prematurity. Many premature babies spend extended periods of time in a fixed position while they recover in the neonatal intensive care unit. This often leads to plagiocephaly.
  • Muscular torticollis. This is a shortening of the muscle in one side of the neck, causing the head to tilt in one direction. 

How we care for plagiocephaly

Here at Boston Children’s Hospital, we have a long history of treating plagiocephaly and other types of brain and skull malformations that affect children. Experts in our Departments of Neurosurgery and Plastic Surgery work together to diagnose and treat children with plagiocephaly and other craniofacial anomalies. We are even able to diagnose some of these problems while babies are still in the womb.