Baby Torticollis: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

Being a parent, your newborn’s health is undoubtedly the top priority. You want them to grow and develop in a healthy manner. But in some cases, after birth, babies develop a head tilt also known as torticollis. Fortunately, torticollis in babies is a temporary condition. This means it can be remedied with proper treatment. Read on to know more about what infant torticollis is, what causes it, the signs and symptoms to look out for, and what treatment your healthcare provider may recommend if your baby has torticollis.

What Is Torticollis?

Torticollis is the Latin word for “twisted neck.” A stiff neck that is hard to turn and sometimes painful is referred to as torticollis, head tilt, or wry neck.

The muscle that is affected by torticollis is the sternocleidomastoid muscle, which connects the head and neck to the breastbone. When this muscle is contracted, it causes a head tilt.

This condition can occur in adults, as well as in infants, babies, and small children. When torticollis is present in newborn babies, it’s called infant torticollis or congenital muscular torticollis.

Torticollis is actually a common condition in newborns, and it affects boys and girls equally. Torticollis can be present at birth or can appear up to three months later.

What Causes Infant Torticollis?

In babies, torticollis may be due to the infant's position in the uterus. It may also occur (though this is rare) during birth, especially if it’s a breech birth (for example, if the baby’s bottom is first into the birth canal instead of the head) or difficult first-time delivery.

Experts aren’t certain why some babies are affected by torticollis, but some contributing factors or possible causes of infant torticollis include:

  • The uterus was too cramped for the baby

  • The baby was in an unusual position at birth, such as being in a breech position

  • Forceps or vacuum devices were used during delivery.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Torticollis?

If your baby has torticollis, you may notice the following signs or symptoms:

  • Your baby tilts his head to one side

  • His chin points the opposite way of his head tilt

  • The neck muscles seem tight

  • Your baby favours looking over one shoulder instead of turning to look the other way

  • If he’s breastfeeding, he may seem to favour one side or one breast

  • Your baby may show frustration when he’s unable to turn his head

  • He may develop a flat spot on his head from keeping his head in the same position when lying down

  • He may have a small lump, like a knot, on his neck on the side of the contracted muscle.

How to Diagnose Torticollis?

If you suspect your baby might have torticollis, take her to her healthcare provider. The condition can usually be detected in the first six to eight weeks after birth.

During the examination, your baby’s healthcare provider will check to see how far your baby can turn her head and will typically search for a lump in the contracted sternocleidomastoid muscle on your baby’s neck.

In some cases, your baby’s provider may order X-rays to help identify the condition or may recommend you take your baby to a physical therapist, neurologist, or orthopedist if the usual forms of treatment aren’t helping.

How Is Torticollis Treated?

If your little one is diagnosed with this condition, follow your healthcare provider’s advice. Your provider may suggest a number of ways to help treat your baby’s torticollis, including:

  • Helping your baby do exercises that work to stretch the tighter side of his neck. This helps loosen the tightened sternocleidomastoid muscle and strengthen the weaker muscle on the opposite side.

  • When it’s time for bed or a nap, put your baby to sleep on his back (as is recommended for safe sleep) in his crib with his torticollis side facing the wall. This way, he must crane his neck in the opposite direction in order to look back at you or see into the room. This may involve you changing the position of his crib to get him in the right position.

  • During the day (for example, during tummy time), position him in a way that he has to stretch his neck in the opposite direction of his head tilt. Try dangling toys or attracting him with fun sounds to try to get him to look your way.

  • When it’s feeding time, bottle-feed or breastfeed your baby in a way so that he is encouraged to face in the opposite direction of his head tilt. You can read more about breastfeeding positions here, but you might like to ask your healthcare provider for personalized advice.

  • In some cases (for example, if other forms of treatment haven’t worked), surgery to lengthen the tendon may be recommended to treat the torticollis.

Does Infant Torticollis Go Away?

Following the treatment plan recommended by your baby’s healthcare provider can help your baby’s torticollis go away. Keep in mind that it can take up to six months to see results, and even up to a year or longer in some cases.

The stretching exercises recommended by your baby’s healthcare provider are usually most effective when they’re started when your baby is between 3 and 6 months old.

The Bottom Line

The good news is torticollis is a treatable condition. In case you notice that your baby has this condition, you must consult with your healthcare provider. He will be able to provide you with the right treatment at the earliest. That’s how, in no time, your little one’s condition will improve, and he will be back being the apple of your eye!

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