Does My Child Have Torticollis?

Torticollis is a postural condition that affects infants, characterized by tipping the head to one side while looking the opposite direction. If you think your child may be experiencing torticollis, read on to learn how to spot and assess symptoms and the treatment options available  through physical therapy.

What Is Torticollis?

While any child  can develop torticollis,  the  condition is more common in larger babies and babies who are over 20.5 inches in length at birth. Torticollis is caused by the tightening of the sternocleidomastoid muscle (STM), which extends from behind the ear down the side of the neck. It is the large neck muscle that is visibly prominent when you tip your head to one side and then look in the opposite direction. If this neck issue goes untreated, it can lead to the asymmetrical development of gross motor skills. Furthermore, torticollis is often associated with another condition called plagiocephaly, which is when the baby develops a flattening of the head in the back and/or on one or more sides. As many as 90% of babies with torticollis also have plagiocephaly. Both torticollis and plagiocephaly can be treated by a pediatric physical therapist—and usually the sooner treatment is initiated, the better the outcomes for your baby and the less time physical therapy is needed.

What Are the Signs of Torticollis?

As a parent, it can be difficult to know if your baby simply prefers looking in one direction or is showing signs of torticollis. Listed below are the top three factors to consider when assessing if your baby may have torticollis. If you recognize any of these in your child, please do not hesitate to bring it up with their doctor or seek out a pediatric physical therapy evaluation. Your child may be experiencing torticollis if:

  1. Only keeps their head in one position when both awake and asleep
  2. Has trouble with symmetrical latching when nursing and takes one breast much easier than the other
  3. Has flattening on the back of the head, mainly on one side

How Is Torticollis Treated?

Common physical therapy techniques for treating torticollis include:

  1. Stretching of the neck
  2. Exercises on a large ball
  3. Actively turning and moving the head around
  4. Education on positioning, such as changing the position of the crib or bassinette
None of these treatments will hurt a baby, but sometimes your child may be uncomfortable and whine or cry. Think of it as if you were seeing a therapist for a stiff neck. You may be slightly uncomfortable during treatment, but as an adult you can communicate that verbally, while a baby may whine or cry to get the point across.

What Causes Torticollis?

Torticollis may have one of any number of causes, from the baby’s position in the uterus to an awkward sleeping position. However, the most important thing to remember is that this condition is not anyone’s fault. You as a parent did nothing wrong if your baby has torticollis or plagiocephaly. Being a parent is very challenging, and you must give yourself some grace. There are professionals who can help if you are having a hard time, so never be afraid to ask.

Where Can I Learn More?

You can read more about the causes, effects, and treatment options for torticollis at kidshealth.org and pathways.org. These are two comprehensive and reputable resources to help answer your questions and help you determine, along with your pediatrician, if you should have your child evaluated for treatment.

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