Video: Helmet heads

updated 8/26/2005 2:36:45 PM ET 2005-08-26T18:36:45

Parents want their children to have every advantage as they set out into the world, which often means providing a little help along the way. Braces and eyeglasses are par for the course, but now some parents are adding helmets to that list. 

For 16-month-old Cadan O'Connell, his customized helmet is helping to shape his head as he grows.  Cadan is one of thousands of children in the U.S. diagnosed annually with plagiocephaly — a misshapen, or flattened head.  His custom-fitted helmet is designed to, literally, round him out.

The O'Connell's first noticed Cadan's flat spot when he was eight-weeks-old.  Their pediatrician said he would grow out of it, which often is the case.  But not for Cadan.

According to his mother, Stephanie, her son’s head developed into an “odd angle” beginning at about eight weeks and "filled out" in ways that did not look right.

Cadan's condition is not rare. Experts say plagiocephaly now affects as many as one in ten infants, likely the result of parents following the American Academy of Pediatrics "Back to Sleep" recommendations.  First set in 1992, doctors recommend placing infants to sleep on their backs to decrease the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. SIDS deaths are down as much as 40 percent,  and doctors stress that placing infants to sleep on their backs is still the only way to go. But plagiocephaly can be a side effect.

“It seems that when some children are allowed to sleep on their backs they tend to sleep in one position only and that tends to flatten the skull out a little bit,” says Dr. Joseph Madsen, a neurosurgeon at Children's Hospital Boston.

Other than the most severe cases, the problem is primarily an aesthetic one.  But for parents it's about more than vanity.

“There are just practical matters associated with having an oddly shaped head, “ notes Cadan’s dad Diarmud O’Connell. He feared his son would have difficulty wearing everything from a simple baseball cap to a standard bicycle helmet.

As the O'Connell's found out, in many cases, less severe forms of plagiocephaly can be fixed. The head gear provides a mold for the child's skull to fill while they are growing. "The helmet does not provide force like you would think teeth braces do, the helmet provides a counterforce that the child grows up against, “ says Joe Terpenning, an orthotist at Eastern Cranial Technologies. The key is early detection, as the helmets rely on growth spurts to reshape the child's head.

Still, the decision to place a child in a helmet is not an easy one. They must be worn 23-and-a-half hours per day, seven days a week, for two to eight months. And they do not go unnoticed. “People asked me if it was for riding a bicycle or a motorcycle,” recalls Cadan’s mother.

Many insurance plans do not cover costs, which can run as high as $3,500.  And though critics say the treatment may be extreme, for the O'Connells, the decision to put Cadan in a helmet was a no-brainer.

“This is pretty much like braces.  You suck it up for a short period of time,” says Mr. O’Connell. “There's no emotional impact on the child.”


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