All new moms and dads want their precious little bundles to be safe, healthy and well taken care of. But sometimes little nigglies like cradle cap can crop up and send doting parents into a bit of a flutter. Though cradle cap, also known as baby dandruff, can be unattractive and a little distressing, Natalie Nelson assures us there is nothing wrong with baby and cradle cap is perfectly normal.
Cradle cap can look like flaky dry dandruffy skin, but more commonly it looks like thick, oily, yellowish scales or crusty patches. The official medical term is infantile seborrheic dermatitis, and it’s very common, not contagious, and definitely harmless.
In very few cases, babies can also experience skin in the affected area that is a little red and can be itchy. Sometimes hair loss occurs, especially when the crusty patches come away, but the hair grows back once the cradle cap is gone.
Despite its name, it is not restricted to the scalp. Cradle cap can also be found on the ears, eyebrows, eyelids, nose, neck, nappy area and behind the knees.
What causes it?
The cause of cradle cap is unknown. One thing that is known though, is that it’s not caused by a lack of hygiene, allergies or bad parenting. There are currently two hypotheses regarding the cause of cradle cap. Some experts believe that it could be due to the hormones that a baby receives from mom towards the end of the pregnancy, triggering an excessive production of oil in the sebaceous (oil producing) glands.
Another possible explanation could be that an irritation from a yeast (malassezia) that grows in the sebum (the oily substance produced by the glands) causes a build-up of these oily scaly patches.
When does it occur?
Cradle cap is most likely to appear in the first two months after birth, but usually between two and four weeks. Though it often clears up relatively quickly, it can last a couple of months, and may even last until baby’s first birthday. In severe cases though, it can last up to three years.
There have, however, been reported cases of cradle cap clearing up for months at a time, and then mysteriously reappearing. It is thought that stress, low immunity and a lack of sleep can trigger it in these cases.
Treatments for cradle cap
Simple cradle cap does not really need medical treatment. In fact, it could just be left alone to clear up by itself. But since we often perceive it as unsightly, us humans want to get it cleared up as quickly as possible!
What is the best way to do this? The first step would be to gently massage baby’s scalp with your fingers or with a washcloth when washing baby’s hair. While the scales are present you can wash baby’s hair daily with a very mild baby shampoo. Should the scales be persistent and not loosen easily, consider rubbing a small amount of baby oil, almond oil or coconut oil onto the affected areas. Do this about 10 – 15 minutes before bath time; it will loosen the scales and make them easier to gently rub off while washing.
After the bath, towel-dry baby’s hair and then gently comb or brush (with a soft-bristled baby brush) the hair to remove patches of flakes. Gentle brushing can (and should) be done between baths as well. Just a word of warning: NEVER pick at or scratch the scales off, no matter how tempting it may be. You could just damage baby’s sensitive skin and cause an infection, especially because nails harbour microscopic dirt particles and icky germs.
Once the scales have cleared up, wash baby’s hair just twice a week. Too much washing may encourage an excessive production of the sebum, causing further issues.
When does medical treatment become necessary?
Cradle cap generally does not require medical treatment, but it is recommended, however, that you take baby to the doctor in the following instances:
- should home treatments not be working at all
- should the condition seem to be getting worse
- should baby develop cradle cap in places where she doesn’t have hair
- should the condition start covering large parts of the body
- should the affected skin cause hair loss or become itchy
- should the area affected become red, feel warm and start oozing (signs of an infection)
- should baby’s cradle cap start bleeding
- should your child have a weakened immune system and/or have trouble gaining weight before developing seborrhoea (cradle cap)
If home treatments don’t seem to be working, your doctor may recommend a mild steroid cream or an antifungal cream, depending on the presenting symptoms. Your doctor may also recommend an appropriate antifungal dandruff shampoo.
Though cradle cap may seem like a big issue to some, it really isn’t. Just remember that it’s normal, it’s treatable and it passes fairly quickly.