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Increased head circumference

Increased head circumference is when the measured distance around the widest part of the skull is larger than expected for the child's age and background.

Considerations

A newborn's head is usually about 2 cm larger than the chest size. Between 6 months and 2 years, both measurements are about equal. After 2 years, the chest size becomes larger than the head.

Measurements over time that show an increased rate of head growth often provide more valuable information than a single measurement that is larger than expected.

Increased pressure inside the head (increased intracranial pressure) often occurs with increased head circumference. Symptoms of this condition include:

Causes

Increased head size may be from any of the following:

  • Benign familial macrocephaly (family tendency toward large head size)
  • Canavan disease (condition that affects how the body breaks down and uses a protein called aspartic acid)
  • Hydrocephalus (buildup of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling)
  • Bleeding inside the skull
  • Disease in which the body is unable break down long chains of sugar molecules (Hurler or Morquio syndrome)

When to Contact a Medical Professional

The health care provider usually finds an increased head size in a baby during a routine well-baby exam.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

A careful physical exam will be done. Other milestones for growth and development will be checked.

In some cases, a single measurement is enough to confirm that there is a size increase that needs to be tested further. More often, repeated measurements of the head circumference over time are needed to confirm that the head circumference is increased and the problem is getting worse.

Diagnostic tests that may be ordered include:

Treatment depends on the cause of the increased head size. For example, for hydrocephalus, surgery may be needed to relieve the buildup of fluid inside the skull.

Alternative Names

Macrocephaly

References

Bamba V, Kelly A. Assessment of growth. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 27.

Robinson S, Cohen AR. Disorders in head shape and size. In: Martin RJ, Fanaroff AA, Walsh MC, eds. Fanaroff and Martin's Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 64.

Review Date 5/17/2019

Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.