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Parents ignoring SIDS guidelines, study finds

Media release: 
10/08/2016

Parents are unknowingly putting their babies at risk of cot death in a bid to avoid flat head syndrome, new research has shown.

A study published in Child: Care, Health and Development revealed parents are ignoring guidelines and are using pillows and potentially dangerous sleeping positions to prevent or treat their baby’s flat head – a condition which affects around 20 per cent of babies.

Associate Professor Alexandra Martiniuk from The George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney studied families in both Sydney and Canada and said she was concerned by the amount of parents ignoring SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) guidelines.

Professor Martiniuk said: “Flat head is concerning for parents because it affects how their child’s looks - now and in the future. Some parents also believe that flat head affects their child’s development.

“Parents told us because they could see their baby getting a flat head they felt it was a more real threat than cot death. So when they noticed a flat spot developing they stopped following SIDS safe sleeping guidelines.”

The number of children with flat head syndrome or positional plagiocephaly has risen significantly in recent years, in part due to SIDS guidelines which began in 1992, which recommend placing babies on their backs to sleep.

Flat head syndrome can occur if the baby consistently holds his or her head a particular way when lying and causes the baby's head to have a flat spot or be misshapen. Parents are advised to give their children tummy time while supervised and awake and to alternate their baby’s head position while sleeping to avoid the syndrome. Severe cases are often treated with an orthotic helmet.

However, the study found parents are using a range of devices and techniques, ranging from placing rolled up towels under the mattress to cause it to slide to one side, putting toys in the bed on one side or using pillows being marketed to reduce flat head.

Dr Martiniuk said there was an urgent need to educate parents about the use of such home approaches.  “We know that many parents are confused and fearful and are being given conflicting advice from health care professionals. For instance some GPs suggest parents wait and see if the condition improves on its own, other GPs go down the path of referrals, whilst some chiropractors are selling these pillows, added Dr Martiniuk.

“There needs to be clear messaging about how parents can safely prevent flat head syndrome from developing.  Parents should not to resort to using unsafe pillows.  Although these pillows are marketed for flat head, there is no evidence that they work, and there is evidence they make the baby’s sleeping environment more dangerous,” said Dr Martiniuk.”

The study also found that flat head is ‘swamping the patient pool’ of some GP, paediatrician and paediatric physiotherapy offices.  This condition often leads to multiple contacts with the health system, referrals to specialists and at times, costly assessment and intervention – but prevention is key.

For more information about how to prevent flat head syndrome go to: www.sidsandkids.org

Read the full study.