Why we went for a helmet

It’s a common scenario for a new mom out in public — a grandmotherly woman approaches you to ooh and ahh over your baby, usually commenting, “It goes so fast!” 

On the day in question for me, I was out with my 6-month-old son at the grocery store, fielding the usual comments from a friendly older woman. “What a sweetheart!” she said as Felix gave her a goofy smile. Then she gazed at me with a serious look: “Does he have seizures?” 

These are the moments I dread. 

No, my son doesn’t have seizures — he has a massive flat spot on the back of his head and the helmet is designed to correct it. No, there’s nothing “wrong” with him; my husband and I simply decided to encase our baby’s head in a helmet for 23 out of 24 hours a day in an effort to make his skull more aesthetically pleasing. 

In other words, it’s just cosmetic. We’re doing our best to make sure our child conforms to cultural norms about head shape and therefore, uphold mainstream standards of beauty.  

As you might have gathered, I have mixed feelings about the helmet. 

What’s plagiocephaly?

For readers who might not be familiar, the helmets I’m talking about are orthotic devices designed to help reshape an infant’s head by directing cranial growth. They’re used to treat plagiocephaly (a.k.a. “flat-head syndrome”), a condition characterized by the flattening of one side of the skull and brachycephaly (a wide head shape with a flattening across the entire back of the head). 

I started noticing the flattening on Felix’s head when he was about 2 months old. It wasn’t severe, but it was definitely noticeable. Our pediatrician noticed it, too, and suggested we work on getting him to turn his head to the right more (the flattening was on the left side, at that point). 

Our older daughter, Lydia, had had a similar flattening early on, but it all evened itself out after some basic repositioning (switching the direction we placed her in the crib every time we laid her down, for example). 

We did the same with Felix, and were even more interventionist — slightly elevating the left side of his mattress, for example. I was also diligent about “tummy time” and frequently carried him around in an Ergo carrier. 

But when I took him to the pediatrician a couple months later, the flat spot was still there. She referred me to the plagiocephaly clinic at Children’s Hospital. 

I was wracked with guilt, and felt like such a failure. Isn’t flat-head syndrome just a fancy way of saying I didn’t pick up my baby enough? 

Of course, I consulted Dr. Google before making an appointment. I read countless testimonials from parents who’d done the helmet and had NO REGRETS and would recommend it to anyone. I read about a recent Dutch study that suggests helmets don’t do anything, and that “time heals all wounds” (or flat heads, at least) and that I’d be an idiot to put my baby in a helmet. 

Making our choice

My husband and I ended up meeting with two clinics in town that deal with cranial reshaping helmets. Both of them recommended the helmet, but emphasized that the decision was up to us. 

Ultimately, we decided to go for it. 

Insurance covered a fair amount of the (significant) cost, so we figured it couldn’t hurt. 

Felix’s head is already starting to look more “normal,” but we’ve definitely met with some challenges along the way — like recurrent skin problems on his scalp, forehead and cheeks (a reaction to the helmet) that have resulted in frequent visits to a pediatric dermatologist.

Despite the unsightly rashes, Felix doesn’t seem to be bothered by the helmet at all. 

And although we’ll never know if getting the helmet was the “right” thing to do, part of our job as parents is to make decisions on behalf of our children. 

And if I can do my part to reduce the number of times my son is called a “blockhead” in school, I’ll take the rashes and the judgmental looks at the park.