The last few weeks of pregnancy are, in a word, uncomfortable. After spending the better part of a year sharing a body with your rapidly growing baby, those final days before your due date can leave you winded even from the simplest of activities. It’s getting cramped in your womb now (an understatement), and if you’re really feeling it, then your baby must be, too. That’s why it’s not all that surprising that some babies are born with torticollis, which is Latin for “twisted neck.”
Torticollis affects the muscle that connects the head and neck to the breastbone, occurring when that muscle is shortened. If your baby has torticollis, they were probably born with it, after being too cramped in the uterus or sustaining an injury to the neck muscle before birth. It’s a condition that is easily diagnosable by a head tilt due to tightened muscles on one side of the neck. You may not even notice it for the first 6-8 weeks, until your baby begins to gain more strength and control over their head and neck. Like anything concerning your baby, it’s completely normal to feel worried about this condition. Fortunately, most cases of infant torticollis are easily treatable at home!
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF TORTICOLLIS
Babies with torticollis mostly act like other babies, and the condition may be hard to spot in newborns, due to their overall limited mobility. However, once your baby becomes a little more active and is able to track objects, you may notice these signs and symptoms of torticollis:
- Head tilting in one direction.
- Limited range of motion in the head and neck
- A flat spot on one side of the head (from always being positioned in one direction)
- A small lump on the neck from the contracted muscle
- Trouble feeding from both breasts (prefers one side to another)
EXERCISES TO TREAT TORTICOLLIS
Torticollis is a treatable condition. In about 75% of babies with torticollis, the right side is affected. Although it’s difficult for your baby to exercise the affected side at first, the best treatment is to encourage your baby to turn their head in both directions.
- Tummy time. While tummy time is an important exercise for all babies, it’s especially useful for those with torticollis. Torticollis is often accompanied by a flat spot from your baby’s head always being positioned on the same side. By allowing your baby to spend much time on their tummy, it strengthens their neck and shoulders, and also gives that flat spot the opportunity to round out again. Place your baby tummy-side down on a soft, comfortable mat like this one, and place all their toys on the side that is opposite of their torticollis (if your baby’s head tilts to the right, place toys on the left). By getting your baby to continually turn toward the opposite side, the exercise stretches the affected muscle.
- Position yourself in the opposite direction of their head tilt. Flashing toys and those that make music are often great at getting your baby’s attention, but the one thing they can’t compete with? You. You are your baby’s favorite thing to look at, and you can use this to your advantage. If your baby prefers to face toward their right side, position yourself or them so that you are on their left side. When you coo and talk to your baby, they will be forced to work their neck muscles in order to turn in your direction.
- Offer the breast or bottle in the other direction. A baby affected by torticollis will often prefer to feed from one breast than the other, or will prefer to have their bottle a certain way that is comfortable for them. Feed your baby from the breast they least prefer, or give them their bottle in a way that forces them to turn their head in the opposite direction. By using a nursing pillow, you can comfortably prop up your baby in the perfect position. A soft cover like this one may also help your baby feel soothed and secure. It’s tempting to give in to their squalls of protest when they turn to the side that isn’t comfortable for them, but food is also a great motivator. It may be hard work at first, but it is these small changes that will strengthen your baby’s neck and help treat their torticollis.
- Have your baby sleep on their back, with their torticollis side facing the wall. When you lay your baby down for a nap or for the night, position them so that their torticollis side faces the wall of the bassinet or crib, and then turn their head toward the opposite side. Even if they turn their head back in the torticollis direction, when they awaken, they will automatically want to examine their surroundings or look for you. Rather than continue facing the wall, they will turn their head the other way and work that tight muscle!
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
If you suspect your baby has torticollis, it’s advisable to consult their pediatrician. Your baby’s doctor can teach you specific neck-stretching exercises to help loosen the tight muscle and strengthen the one on the other side, which will be weaker from underuse. It might take 6 months or even a year to go away completely, but if your baby’s torticollis is not improving, your pediatrician may recommend surgery to release the affected muscle.