Struggling with Helmet Therapy and Sleep? Better Sleep for Babies Wearing a Cranial Helmet 2024

by | Feb 17, 2024 | Improving sleep, Top tips

As a parent, navigating the world of helmet therapy for your baby can be overwhelming. Especially in the UK, where helmet therapy isn’t offered on the NHS, you may have been wondering if it’s the right path for your little one. In the US, your insurance provider may cover this cost. Once you’ve decided on the helmet, then some families may face additional challenges of both the helmet therapy and sleep.

Whether it’s addressing plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome) or brachycephaly, finding the right treatment is crucial for your child’s well-being.

I understand this journey first-hand, as my own son, Charlie, underwent helmet therapy (he had a TiMband, in the US you may have a Doc Band helmet) for severe brachycephaly over a six month period. He was rather late to the party, starting his treatment at 11 months.

Even as a child sleep specialist I was worried about the impact on Charlie’s sleep (which we’d only just managed to get right after a really long period of illness!).

Through this experience, I’ve learned valuable insights into how helmet therapy can affect a baby’s sleep and overall comfort. From my own parenting experience, and as a baby sleep expert, I’ll aim to explore the nuances of helmet therapy and its impact on your baby’s sleep patterns, along with practical tips for coping with any challenges that may arise.

Understanding Helmet Therapy

What is Helmet therapy? Helmet therapy, also known as cranial orthosis, is a non-invasive treatment aimed at reshaping a baby’s skull as it grows. Typically this ‘treatment’ takes place in the first year of life as the head is growing rapidly. Most helmets are work for 23 hours a day, including day and nighttime sleep periods.

Most commonly the helmet aims to address abnormalities such as plagiocephaly or brachycephaly. Helmets can also be used to support a baby with the rarer condition or craniosynostosis where the plates of the skull prematurely fuse together. Unlike plagiocephaly or brachycephaly, this requires treatment at a specialist centre like Great Ormond Street Hospital. Charlie was originally seen and assessed for this. A worrying experience all round.

helmet therapy and sleep
Yes – the clean up job was as bad as you probably think it was. Oh my – all those little holes!!

Helmet therapy involves the use of a custom-fitted cranial helmet designed to gently apply pressure to specific areas of the skull, encouraging balanced growth and alignment. The idea is this helps to change the shape of the skull before it becomes too ‘firm’.

Most babies with mild plagiocephaly or mild brachycephaly won’t need a helmet, just lots of positioning and ‘tummy time’. For those with more ‘severe’ head shapes, like Charlie’s brachycephaly, the helmet can help speed up the process of reshaping.

Effects of Helmet Therapy and Sleep

While helmet therapy is instrumental in correcting flat spots, it can also pose challenges, particularly when it comes to your baby’s sleep. Some common effects of helmet therapy on baby sleep include:

  1. Helmet Therapy and Sleep Disturbance: The initial adjustment period to wearing a cranial helmet may disrupt your baby’s sleep patterns. They may experience discomfort or agitation as they acclimate to the sensation of wearing the helmet during sleep.
  2. Discomfort and Irritation: Helmet therapy can sometimes cause discomfort or irritation for your baby, especially during the first few days or weeks of wearing the helmet. Sore spots can appear and this discomfort may lead to restless sleep or frequent waking throughout the night.
  3. Changes in Sleep Patterns: Your baby’s sleep patterns may shift as they adapt to wearing the helmet. They may prefer certain sleeping positions over others or experience difficulty finding a comfortable sleeping position with the helmet on.
  4. Temperature Regulation: Some babies may have difficulty regulating their body temperature while wearing a cranial helmet, leading to potential overheating or discomfort during sleep.
sleeping with a helmet
Charlie at 12 months sleeping with his helmet

Helmet therapy and sleep: Coping Strategies for Parents

Navigating helmet therapy and its effects on your baby’s sleep can be challenging, but there are strategies you can employ to help ease the transition:

  1. Gradual Introduction: Introduce the helmet gradually, allowing your baby time to adjust to wearing it during awake hours before incorporating it into their sleep routine. Your provider should be able to recommend a gentle transition schedule for your child, slowly building on the amount of ‘wear time’ each day.
  2. Comfort Measures: Ensure that the helmet fits properly and is comfortable for your baby. Padding the helmet with soft materials or adjusting the fit can help alleviate discomfort during sleep. Make sure you discuss extra padding with your treatment provider, if you feel your baby is uncomfortable or getting sore spots ring them straight away. Your provider may suggest using Vaseline or Sudocreme to protect the skin if there are red sore spots if they’ve been sleeping in a certain position.
  3. Monitor their temperature: Lot’s of babies will run ‘hotter’ when wearing a helmet. You may need to reduce their clothing layers, or reduce the tog rating of their sleep sack/sleeping bag (e.g. from 2.5 tog to 1.5 tog). In the summer they may need to sleep in just a nappy and you may want to consider using a fan (not pointing directly on them) to help keep them cool. We want to avoid hot, sweaty babies!
  4. Establishing a Consistent Bedtime Routine: Stick to a consistent bedtime routine to help your baby feel secure and relaxed before sleep. Incorporate calming activities such as a warm bath or gentle massage to promote relaxation. Check out many of my other blog posts on promoting good sleep hygiene, my sleep environment course and others. If you baby slept well prior to weaning a helmet then it’s likely they’ll adjust quickly.
  5. Monitor Your Baby’s Comfort: Pay close attention to your baby’s cues and comfort level while wearing the helmet. If they seem agitated or restless during sleep, try adjusting the helmet or providing additional comfort measures like a comforter, dummies/pacifier, or some extra cuddles.
  6. Seek Support: Reach out to a healthcare professional or specialist for guidance and support throughout the helmet therapy process, especially if your baby is really struggling. They can offer personalised advice and address any concerns you may have about your baby’s sleep or overall well-being. Remember, they do this everyday!
  7. Sleep support: You can absolutely work on sleep and improving sleeping patterns whilst your baby is wearing a helmet. You don’t have to wait until it’s finished. Reach out to someone like me who will really know what it’s like to have a baby going through this process.
  8. Naps in motion are fine! Seriously, if this helps your baby sleep and catch up then let’s go with a pram/stroller, sling or contact nap.

helmet therapy and sleep

What not to do

This is hard to write as I know parents often adopt or trial new things out of desperation. Having been part of a parents Facebook group since Charlie’s treatment 18 months ago I know all things are tried and advised by well meaning parents.

  • ‘The towel trick’: Unfortunately I can’t advocate for changing the height of the mattress with towels. The NHS and Lullaby Trust ask for babies to sleep on a firm, flat sleep surface to help prevent SIDS. Safe sleep absolutely has to come first.
  • Using props, sleep positioners or sleep ‘aids’: Again, the cot needs to be kept clear for safe sleep. If you’re looking for sleep aids that are safe and I rate, you can check them out here.
  • Add or remove any ‘pads’ applied by your fitting professional during the night
  • Keeping the helmet on if your baby has a fever (Temp above 38C or 100.4F). Check out my blog post on illness and sleep.

Managing during helmet therapy

Some babies will adjust like nothing ever happened, others may take a few days and others may take 2-3 weeks. Consistency and perseverance (as well as a LOT of practice) will get you to some better, less stressful nights.

Certainly self-care is important. If your baby is struggling then it may be a rough 2-3 weeks as they adjust to sleeping in a new way. Just like when they were a newborn, if you are able to ask for some help to catch up on your own sleep that’s great.

Consider moving a blow-up mattress into their nursery to you can support them more easily if they’re up a lot at night. Remember the helmet is temporary, they’ll adjust, with time, but you do need to try and look after yourself too.

helmet therapy and sleep

Still struggling?

If you’re navigating helmet therapy for your baby and seeking personalised support and guidance, I’m here to help. As a Child Sleep Specialist also with first-hand parenting experience during helmet therapy, and obviously understanding helmet therapy and sleep (!) I offer tailored 1:1 consultations to assist parents in managing sleep-related challenges during this journey. Contact me to schedule a consultation and get things back on track.

plagiocephaly and sleep

Conclusion

Helmet therapy is a valuable treatment option for addressing head shape and flat head syndrome in babies, but it can also impact their sleep patterns and comfort.

By understanding the effects of helmet therapy on sleep and implementing practical coping strategies, parents can navigate this journey with confidence and support. Remember, you’re not alone—reach out for personalised guidance and assistance to ensure your baby thrives throughout the helmet therapy process.

If the generic advice on helmet therapy and sleep isn’t helping, I’m here to help! I can tailor advice and plans to your family and situation.

I can help re-establish good bedtime habits and provide tips on how to cope with inevitable nighttime disruptions. I offer tried-and-tested sleep support solutions that are well worth the investment for your whole family.

Need help with helmet therapy and sleep? Have a look at my sleep consultant packages or directly get in touch.

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Hi, I’m Gemma, your sleep consultant

I am a certified baby and child sleep specialist who works with families all over the world.

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