Small changes to a child's head size should not concern parents

May 18, 2015, University of Bristol
Small changes to a child’s head size should not concern parents

Measuring the size of a child's head is done routinely worldwide to screen for possible learning or developmental problems but new research out today [18 May] suggests that differences within the normal range of measurements are common – and mainly due to human error – and should not unduly concern parents.

This new research, based on over 10,000 participants in Children of the 90s at the University of Bristol, calls into question the practical value of using head measurement as a screening test as it could mean many undergo unnecessary tests such as MRI scans and referral to specialists.

Researchers from the universities of Bristol and Glasgow found that most children (more than eight in ten, 85 per cent) who had very small heads went on to develop normally. Only a small number of children developed later educational or development problems, though this was more common than in children with normal-sized heads (15 per cent compared to 4.5 per cent).

At the same time, most children (more than nine in ten, 93 per cent) who turned out to have developmental problems later in life had heads that were within the normal size range.

The researchers also found that increasing or decreasing head size and very large heads were unrelated to later problems.

Increasing head size can be an important indicator of hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) but this is a rare condition affecting only about six in 10,000 children, while as many as one in seven children showed increasing head size in the first year.

The information the researchers used for their analysis were:

  • the children's head circumference measurements taken at multiple time points from the age of two months to 24 months both in baby clinics and by research staff;
  • the children's IQ results measured at age seven. A low IQ was defined as an IQ below 70;
  • the children's educational records taken from the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census dataset for 2003/4 when they were aged 11.

The researchers also used educational records to identify the number of children recorded as needing extra classroom support with a statement of (SSEN) at the age of 11.

Health records were analysed by a team of researchers led by a developmental paediatrician to identify all children with a range of neuro-developmental problems including learning disabilities, speech problems, autism, epilepsy, ADHD and behavioural problems.

Speaking about the findings, the report's first author, Dr Charlotte Wright from the University of Glasgow, said: "It seems to be hard to measure heads reliably. Our research shows that most apparent abnormalities turned out to be human errors, rather than real differences. We would argue that measuring in healthy infants can cause unnecessary anxiety for parents and should only be used when there are other concerns about a baby's development or head growth.

"We would recommend that a child's head is measured once in the early days of life and once more before the age of six months and that the UK's Health Child Programme be reviewed in light of this evidence.

"Any parent concerned about their child's growth or development should always speak to their health visitor or GP in the first instance."

Explore further: Independent review shows program helps children with disabilities

More information: "Head Growth and Neurocognitive Outcomes." Pediatrics peds.2014-3172; published ahead of print May 18, 2015, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-3172

Related Stories

Independent review shows program helps children with disabilities

April 9, 2015
Parents of children with developmental disabilities can take heart from new research which shows that a University of Queensland program can reduce serious emotional and behavioural problems.

New method of screening children for autism spectrum disorders works at nine months old

April 15, 2014
Researchers, including a team from Children's National Health System, have identified head circumference and head tilting reflex as two reliable biomarkers in the identification of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in children ...

Early child care experiences play role in kids' future

April 21, 2015
Children who use centre-based child care and multiple care arrangements across their early years are better prepared for school, a new QUT study has found.

Why quality childcare is important for low-income children

May 11, 2015
High-quality childcare can help close developmental gaps in children from low socio-economic backgrounds, according to new research from the University of Adelaide.

IQ link to baby's weight gain in first month

June 17, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—New research from the University of Adelaide shows that weight gain and increased head size in the first month of a baby's life is linked to a higher IQ at early school age.

Higher levels of inattention at age 7 linked with lower GCSE grades

April 30, 2015
New research has shown that children who display increasing levels of inattention at the age of seven are at risk of worse academic outcomes in their GCSE examinations.

Recommended for you

The inequalities of prenatal stress

August 14, 2018
Exposure to an acute stress in utero can have long-term consequences extending into childhood – but only among children in poor households, according to a new Stanford study that looked at the long-term impact of acute, ...

Promoting HPV vaccine doesn't prompt risky sex by teens: study

August 13, 2018
(HealthDay)—Controversial state laws that promote vaccinating kids against the human papillomavirus (HPV) do not increase the likelihood that teens will engage in risky sexual behavior, a new study contends.

Grip strength of children gives clues about their future health

August 13, 2018
While other studies have shown that muscle weakness as measured by grip strength is a predictor of unhealthy outcomes—including cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, disability and even early mortality—this is the first ...

Prenatal vitamin D pills won't boost babies' growth: study

August 9, 2018
(HealthDay)—For pregnant women who are vitamin D-deficient, vitamin supplements won't improve the growth of their fetus or infant, Canadian researchers report.

Giving kids plates with segments and pictures caused them to eat more vegetables

August 8, 2018
A pair of researchers at the University of Colorado has found that preschool kids ate more vegetables when presented with segmented plates with pictures of fruits and vegetables on them. In their paper published in JAMA Pediatrics, ...

Is too much screen time harming children's vision?

August 6, 2018
As children spend more time tethered to screens, there is increasing concern about potential harm to their visual development. Ophthalmologists—physicians who specialize in medical and surgical eye care—are seeing a marked ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.