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Torticollis—It Doesn’t Have To Be A Pain in the Neck!

Congratulations! You just brought your sweetest bundle of joy home and are ready to share that cute sleepy smile with the world! As you scroll through your recently snapped pictures, you realize your sweet babe is always holding her head to one side. As the days progress, you notice that she still prefers that one side and appears to struggle with turning her head to explore her new world. What’s more, as you swaddle your babe and diligently put her “back to sleep”, you start to realize her head is starting to become slightly flatter on the back too. As you mention it to the pediatrician at the next well visit, he starts to use big words such as “torticollis” and “plagiocephaly” and recommends a physical therapy consultation. Before spiraling into tears thinking you’ve already broken your newborn, we are here to help! Torticollis is not scary, but here is what you should know and why it should be treated (early!):

Muscle Tightness—It’s a Vicious Cycle:

Some babies are all about moving while still in the womb, but sometimes a baby can find a comfy position and settle in for those last few weeks, especially if there are multiples when space can be hard to come by or generally in the last trimester when she is literally running out of room! As squishy as babies are, even before they are born, there is the potential for muscles to start reacting to this preferred position. If this happens, muscle fibers in the neck can start to shorten or tighten. This can make it harder for baby to turn her head or feel uncomfortable to stretch it, so she learns to keep it positioned just so. This starts a vicious cycle of tightening and restricting more movement until the muscle becomes stuck and range of motion is lost.

Plagio…What?

Babies are born with skulls that are not quite done developing and hardening; this helps with the birthing process. When a baby holds their head to one side for an extended period, the skull can start to flatten as a baby spends time on her back or develop an off-centered flat spot if she is consistently tilted one way or the other. This flattening is what’s known as plagiocephaly. Among other purposes, this is one of the biggest reasons medical professionals encourage as much tummy time as possible, under safe supervision, for infants. It is also suggested to spend less time in baby positioning devices, such as bouncers, swings, exersaucers, and car seats (except in the car, of course!)

So, now what?

Although these signs might seem alarming, torticollis is common among babies and highly treatable. Pediatricians and parents are encouraged to seek treatment early if torticollis or plagiocephaly is suspected. Many of a baby’s first milestones depend on her being able to see the world around her and turn her head to keep up with her ever-broadening curiosity. If left untreated, torticollis can interfere with development of important skills like visual perception, bringing her hands to midline, and bigger gross motor skills, such as rolling and crawling—another important milestones! Without conservative treatment of regular visits to a physical therapist, torticollis may lead to other disorders and/or require surgical correction. With intervention such as guided stretches and positioning recommendations from a trained therapist, your baby may not even skip a beat in her fleeting stages of development.

 – Laura Stephens, PT, DPT