When Surrey couple, Emma and Dan Sparshatt, noticed something odd about the shape of their baby son’s head the NHS was unable to help, so they decided to take matters into their own hands... Emma Sparshatt felt that she had good reason to be concerned when she noticed a slight deformity to the left side of baby Elliot’s skull, but health visitors and doctors didn’t agree. “I was made to feel like an overprotective mother. And even that I was vain to be worrying about the shape of my son’s head.”
Elliot was six months old when his parents first noticed that his head was an unusual shape, and by the time he was nine months the deformity was noticeable enough to attract comments from outside the family. “His ears were uneven, and his jaw was lower on one side,” says Emma, “it wasn’t just Dan and me that could see it, other people noticed too.”
Elliot was diagnosed with positional plagiocephaly – more commonly known as flat head syndrome. The condition has become increasingly widespread in recent years, since parents have been advised to put their young children to sleep on their backs.
Parents, quite rightly, put babies on their backs when sleeping to minimise the risk of cot death, but some babies then favour a particular sleeping position to the extent that the pressure on the skull causes their head to develop asymmetrically.
Postional plagiocephaly isn’t life threatening, and when Emma expressed her concerns, first to health visitors and then to her GP, she was advised to try and alter Elliot’s sleeping position and was told that his head shape would right itself in time.
When, after a further three months, Elliot’s head seemed to be getting more misshapen rather than less, his father took him to the GP for a second time.
“The first time I went I was made to feel as though I was making a fuss about nothing, and I thought Dan might get a better response,”says Emma.
But the advice they were given was the same as before, and, increasingly concerned about their son’s welfare, Dan and Emma turned to the internet. There, they discovered that Elliot’s condition was more than just cosmetic – there could be further complications. If Elliot’s jaw continued growing out of line he may even need corrective surgery.
In addition to the medical implications, Emma, who runs a theatre school, was concerned about Elliot’s appearance and the possibility of him being teased later on if he looked different from other children. “I work with children, so I know what it can be like. Starting off life with a normally shaped head doesn’t seem like too much to ask.”
Emma and Dan discovered that there are private clinics treating children with positional plagiocephaly by fitting them with lightweight helmets to encourage the head to grow more evenly. One clinic in particular, Ahead4Babies, based in central London, caught their attention.
When Emma saw photos of babies with corrective helmets on the clinic’s website she remembered that she had seen a child wearing something similar. “A friend of my sister had one when her baby was very small. At the time I hadn’t realised what it was, but we got in touch with her and she told us that the treatment had been very successful. She thoroughly recommended this clinic.”
Emma and Dan didn’t lose any time, they made an appointment straight away and at thirteen months Elliot was fitted with a helmet. “It was much better than we were expecting it to be,” says Emma, “It only goes round the sides of his head, it doesn’t cover the top, and, strangely, he really likes it! The only issue is that it can make him feel hot, so we have to dress him in light clothes and keep the heating down.”
Elliot will wear the helmet for 23 hours a day for around six to eight months and even big brother Max, who’s four, approves. “When Elliot came home with the helmet, Max said ‘Oh, Elliot, you do look nice!’” Laughs Emma, “When we take it off for an hour for Elliot to have his bath he runs over to it and tries to put it on again.”
Although Elliot started his treatment relatively late – doctors recommend that the helmet treatment should ideally be begun in the first year of a child’s life – the initial signs are good. “We’ve just had our first follow up appointment and Elliot’s head has grown 2mm – which is really encouraging news”.
The Sparshatt’s family story looks set to end happily, but Emma is keen to stress that the outcome might have been different if they hadn’t done their own research and been prepared to pay privately for treatment. “I do feel that I was fobbed off by the health visitor service and by our GPs. I hope that telling our story will help to raise awareness about the condition and the preventative measures that people can take.”
DO put your baby to sleep his or her back.
BUT give them lots of tummy time while they are awake and encourage them to adopt slightly different sleeping positions by adjusting them while they are asleep and moving the position of their cot in the room.
If you are concerned about the shape of your baby’s head:
• First visit your doctor to rule out Synostosis, a rare condition where the skull has fused prematurely and may require surgery.
• If your baby has Positional Plagiocephaly and you have spotted it early then it may be possible to treat it with a combination of repositioning and physiotherapy.
• If helmet therapy is going to be necessary the earlier the treatment begins, the more quickly it is likely to succeed. Ideally it should be started before six months.
• Private treatment with helmet therapy costs around £2000. It may be possible to get funding from your local Primary Care Trust.