Hi. My name is Beth, and my daughter wore a helmet.
Zelda, my wonderful-in-all-ways eight-month-old daughter, just finished wearing a STARband, which basically looks like a foam helmet with the top cut off.
Why did she wear it? Because I let her head get flat.
Maybe that last one isn’t true, but it’s how I felt for quite some time.
I wanted to join some kind of Helmets Anonymous group because I kept telling myself that I should have stopped this from happening. When Zelda was four months old, I thought her head looked a little flat in one spot on the back toward the left. Her doctor agreed and said it was because she was favoring one side. He suggested that I bring her back in a month to see if it had rounded out, and if it had not, he would refer her to a specialist. I knew what that meant: she might need a helmet. (Gasp! The horror!) He showed me how to make her stretch her neck the other way, an activity she detested. I vowed to repeat the procedure multiple times a day because there was no way I was going to make my child wear a helmet.
That day, I went home and made myself a little nuts by Googling images of babies in helmets. I cried. Then I became a super vigilant Momzilla. When my husband put Zelda on the changing table, I would order him to hurry up and get that new diaper on so she wouldn’t be on her back for too long. When my mother-in-law watched Zelda for an hour and dared to take pictures of her playing on the floor on her back, I wrote a not-so-nice email reminding her of the inherent dangers of that position. I carried her in the proper cradle hold that turned her into a giant V and made me look like I was torturing my baby. I handed her toys on her right side.
Mostly what I did, though, was obsess.
I stared at her flat spot, willing it to be round. When we had visitors or were out and about, I imagined that everyone was staring at her head and blaming me for being a negligent parent. But really? I was the only one labeling myself.
When we followed up with the pediatrician, he assessed the situation as “not critical,” but he sent me to a specialist “just to be on the safe side.” The specialist, a pediatric plastic surgeon, reiterated that sentiment. He was on the fence about whether Zelda needed a helmet. It was clear that she still had a slight preference for looking to the left, but soon she would be getting more mobile and wouldn’t spend much time on her back, so it was entirely possible that her head would correct itself without any intervention.
Then again, it might not, and there was a limited time frame during which the problem could be solved easily.
At five months, she was growing quickly, but what about at nine months? Or a year? Soon enough, her cranium wouldn’t be malleable enough to make any changes, and then it would be too late.
The surgeon gave me the number of an occupational therapist who works with babies that have torticollis and plagiocephaly. “She’s the best,” he promised. That afternoon, I was on the fence too. I worried about putting my child through the discomfort of wearing a helmet for months. I also worried that my friends and family would think my poor parenting skills had caused this problem, and that I would somehow scar my daughter forever. Then I spoke to a friend whose 2-year-old son still has his flat spot because their pediatrician assured them it would go away on its own. They waited too long, and now they have some regret. But he’s adorable, with thick dark hair that completely hides the flat spot.
My husband brought his usual pragmatic approach to Zelda’s issue. Was this a problem we could solve? Then we should solve it, and we shouldn’t wait. I decided to swallow my pride, bite the bullet, and get a helmet on my kid ASAP. I was the only person who would feel awkward, and that was not a valid excuse for not doing everything in my power to help give my kid a round head.
And so, I made an appointment the next day. In the waiting room, I stared at the babies and toddlers in their helmets, most of which were decorated with stickers and silk flowers. The children seemed unperturbed by their accessories, but that didn’t ease my mind. I was choking on another huge dose of guilt with a side of remorse.
That’s when I met Ari. As a trained occupational therapist who works exclusively with babies and toddlers, Ari is an expert on the cranium. She is a walking encyclopedia on anything related to plagiocephaly and torticollis, but that’s not why I am such a huge fan. I love Ari because Zelda loves Ari.
Instead of a doctor’s examination table, Ari has a cushy mat on the floor, where Zelda could roll and play. Ari walked in that first day – and every day we saw her – with a huge smile just for Zelda. She talked to Zelda in a calm and happy voice, and she instantly made us feel at ease.
Ari answered all my neurotic-mom questions. How bad is this flat spot? How long does it take to acclimate to the helmet? What if Zelda hates it? How long will she need to wear it? What happens if it gets dirty? Ari was patient and kind and never seemed bothered that I asked the same questions dozens of other parents must ask her every week.
She shared with me the necessary regimen, which included wearing the helmet 23 hours a day. The one hour with it off was for cleaning the helmet with alcohol and giving Zelda a bath. If I saw excessive redness or had any other concerns or questions, Ari told me to call her on her cell phone anytime. I almost cried at this simple but truly amazing act of kindness; I can’t imagine my pediatrician giving me his personal cell phone number in case I need to text him at 6:00 AM on a Sunday. About halfway through the conversation, Zelda got antsy and began to rub her eyes. That’s when Ari began clapping her hands to distract Zelda. And she kept clapping until we were done talking, which meant she clapped and talked for at least ten minutes. That’s professionalism at its finest – and some serious coordination.
I cried a little in the parking lot after that first visit. I’m a sensitive gal, and this was a big test of my mommy strength. I told myself to get over it and do the right thing, which worked well (as did the chocolate milkshake I bought myself on the way home). During the two weeks we waited for the helmet to arrive, I became Momzilla to the max, since I finally knew the extent of the problem. I’m pretty sure the back of Zelda’s head didn’t touch anything but the crib for those 14 days.
When Ari first placed the helmet on Zelda, I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn’t cry (again). The poor kid looked like something was “wrong” with her, and that broke my heart. The first week was a time of adjustment for all of us. The helmet made Zelda’s head hotter than usual, and it didn’t help that the South Florida summer was rolling in like a herd of angry buffalo. We had to wipe her down every hour or so, and even that didn’t eliminate the stinkiness.
The trick was to get the helmet off, wipe her head and the foamy inside of the helmet, and get it back on within one minute and without upsetting her too much. I’d like to say that practice makes perfect, but I’m not sure I ever got the hang of getting the helmet off and on gracefully. I was warned that giving her “helmet breaks” during the day didn’t help in the long run. It might seem like I was doing her a favor, but it could result in her needing to wear the helmet for more than the predicted three months, and it would make it more difficult for her to acclimate to wearing it.
The first few nights were rough. Zelda had been a champion sleeper, but the helmet threw her off her game, and she woke up a few times each night. We had just started to introduce solids to her diet, but I didn’t want to get the helmet dirty, so I limited “messy” foods to the hour she was helmet-free. After a quick meal, she had a bath so I could wash the sweaty smell out of her hair and the sweet potato or what-have-you out of her ears, eyebrows, belly button, etc. Once she was dry, the helmet, which had been cleansed with rubbing alcohol, was returned to her head.
In polite company, we referred to the helmet as “Zelda’s crown,” a necessary part of her warrior princess uniform. She couldn’t have cared less. After that first week, she only noticed the helmet when we took it off. Then she shook her head back and forth as if to ask, “Where did it go?” All my worries began to melt away. Zelda stopped sweating, she slept through the night, and she still looked really adorable.
We visited Ari every two weeks to check Zelda’s progress. She grew faster than expected, and I can honestly say that even to my untrained eye, I could tell the helmet was making a difference within the first month. Ari took note of how the flat spot was rounding out and then shaved down the foam inside to accommodate the next couple weeks of growth.
I was all smiles in her office, but I wasn’t taking Zelda out to run as many errands or to visit as many friends and relatives. I didn’t post any helmet pictures on Facebook because I didn’t want to be judged. I shouldn’t have cared, but I did. Of the 20 or so strangers and vague acquaintances who mentioned the helmet during our adventures around town, only three asked what was “wrong” with her or what had “happened” to need the helmet. They assumed she’d hurt herself or had surgery. I assured them that she was just fine, and they were relieved. The rest of the people who commented on her helmet wanted to share with me their experiences. I always thanked them for sharing; with each new story, I felt a little better. We weren’t the only family dealing with this.
As with most stages in the life of an infant, the “helmet episode” flew by. After just two months, Zelda was helmet-free. I was more than shocked at how quickly the flat spot had rounded out, and I almost asked Ari if we could keep her in it a little longer. Zelda had pretty much grown out of the helmet by that point, and there was no reason for a kid with a round head to keep wearing a helmet. When we said goodbye to Ari that day and walked to the car, I admit that I cried. Again! I think I’d grown to depend on the helmet like a security blanket. Zelda was starting to crawl and pick herself up, and knowing that her head was somewhat protected made me less anxious.
With the helmet on, her not-quite-hard-yet noggin was encased and safe from further flat spots, and my Momzilla tendencies took a back seat. With the helmet off, I was terrified that she would regress, and we would need to start all over again. Ari assured me that since Zelda is much more mobile now, she won’t spend enough time in any one position to create another case of plagiocephaly.
This particular hurdle is behind us, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that the “ordeal” turned out to be nothing of the sort. Zelda will only remember this when we show her the pictures. Someday, she might even thank her dad and me for doing what we thought was best. We will make many, many mistakes as parents, but putting our kid in a helmet isn’t one of them.