Have you noticed flaky, scaly patches on your baby’s scalp? Don’t worry; it is likely cradle cap! Cradle cap is a common skin condition that impacts infants and often it appears worse than what it actually is. In this blog, we will explore what cradle cap is; the symptoms, who can get it, causes, prevention, treatment and when you should seek medical advice for your baby.
Cradle cap and your baby: the causes, the effects and how to treat it
What is cradle cap?
Cradle cap is also known as seborrheic dermatitis and is a common skin condition that impacts newborn babies and infants. You may notice thick, yellow or brown, scaly patches on your baby’s scalp that often resembles dandruff. Cradle cap is most commonly seen on the scalp, however it may also appear on the eyebrows, eyelids, ears or the area behind the ears. Although it may appear concerning, cradle cap is not contagious and is usually harmless.
Who can get cradle cap?
Cradle cap is most common in newborn babies up until three months of age, however it can occur in older babies and children.
What are the symptoms of cradle cap?
There are a few common symptoms of cradle cap including:
- • Scaly and crusty patches on the scalp that appear greasy, and it may cover a small area or the whole scalp
- • The skin may appear flaky and white, similar to dandruff
- • There may be a slight redness around the affected patches
- • The affected patches may be itchy, however usually the itchiness would only bother older babies and children rather than young babies
Importance of taking care of cradle cap
Not only does removing cradle cap look nicer for your baby, but it can also help them maintain a healthy scalp. This means that they may reduce their risk of developing any skin infections or other skin conditions. Furthermore, taking care of cradle cap can help to reduce any discomfort to your baby, such as itchiness caused by the cradle cap build up.
What can cause cradle cap?
The exact causes of cradle cap remain unknown, however there are a series of factors that are thought to contribute to the development of cradle cap.
Overactive Sebaceous Glands
The most widely accepted cause of cradle cap is from the overactive sebaceous glands in a baby’s skin. A sebaceous gland produces the oily substance called sebum, this lubricates the skin and hair. Because human babies are born quite immature they may have overactive sebaceous glands thus causing them to produce too much sebum. Having too much sebum, may cause it to build up and lead to the formation of greasy scales on the scalp.
During pregnancy the mother’s hormones are constantly being passed through to the baby. This means that the mother’s hormones may stimulate the baby’s sebaceous glands and play a role in the develop of the sebum build up. Thus leading to the development of cradle cap.
Malassezia is a yeast that is naturally present on the skin and does not usually cause any harm. In some babies, Malassezia can overgrow due to their immature immune system and hormonal fluctuations and lead to an imbalance in the baby’s skin. This imbalance is thought to lead to the development of cradle cap.
Bacterial causes of cradle cap are much less common however they may contribute to the development of cradle cap. If the bacteria Staphylococcus and Streptococcus become overgrown, they may cause inflammation and irritation, thus leading to the increased scaling and flaking of the scalp as seen in cradle cap.
Genetics also play a role in the development of cradle cap. Some studies have found that if the parents had cradle cap as a baby, then the child is more likely to develop cradle cap. Although genetics do play a role in the development, it is not a sole contributor and it is likely that the hormonal, sebaceous glands and environmental factors are also involved.
In babies that may be more prone to cradle cap, environmental factors may trigger or exacerbate it. Insufficient skin care can contribute to the development of cradle cap. It is important that when you are bathing your baby, that you wash the scalp to reduce the build-up of oils, dead skin and products which may encourage bacteria to grow. Cold weather and dry air can also contribute to the development of cradle cap. This is because the skin on the scalp is dried out and flaking and scaling may occur.
Prevention of Cradle Cap
The best way to prevent cradle cap is through regular and gentle scalp care. This can be done through:
- • Regularly washing your baby’s scalp with b.box body cleanse hair + body wash. When you apply the shampoo to your baby’s scalp, use your fingertips to gently massage it in. Then make sure you rinse all the shampoo out completely before patting dry.
- • Use a soft brush to gently brush your baby’s scalp before or during each bath. This will help to gently remove any flakes as well as increase circulation to the area.
- • Don’t over wash or use harsh chemicals. Using harsh chemicals or over washing can make cradle cap worse as it can cause an imbalance in the skin of the scalp. Instead of washing every day, try to wash baby’s hair every few days to ensure a well-balanced scalp.
- • Do not use any adult hair products or styling products on your baby’s hair as this can clog the pores and exacerbate the cradle cap.
- • You want to try and keep the baby’s scalp moisturised instead of dry as this will help prevent the development of cradle cap. You can do this by gently massaging in a natural oil such as coconut, jojoba or almond oil into your baby’s scalp before they have a bath. This will help to soften and scales and prevent dryness.
- • Making sure that your baby is having a healthy well-balanced diet can help to keep the skin balanced and prevent cradle cap. It is essential that your baby stays well hydrated to ensure good scalp health and overall health for your baby.
- • Extreme heat and humidity can also contribute to the development of cradle cap, so it is essential that you avoid your baby overheating by ensuring that they are dressed appropriately for the weather. Using hats or beanies when it is warm outside may cause your baby to overheat, which may further contribute to cradle cap. Thus, it is important not to overuse hats and beanies during warmer months. Using a humidifier during dry seasons can prevent the scalp from drying out and thus prevent cradle cap developing.
What are treatments for cradle cap?
If your baby does develop cradle cap, try not to worry. Here are some easy and effective treatments to help reduce cradle cap.
- • Using a gentle cleansing shampoo will help to reduce the build-up of excessive oils without impacting the normal balance on the scalp. It is important to be mindful of over washing as this may cause irritation and make dryness worse.
- • Gently brushing your baby’s scalp will help to lift the scales and remove the cradle cap without causing any discomfort to your baby.
- • Try adding a natural oil such as jojoba oil, coconut oil or olive oil to your baby’s scalp before bathing your baby to try and loosen some of the scales on the baby’s scalp thus making them easier to remove
- • Breastmilk contains antibacterial properties as well as essential nutrients that can help remove cradle cap. Try adding breastmilk onto baby’s scalp to help loosen some of the scales before trying to remove them through gentle brushing.
- • After you have bathed your baby try to dry the scalp to prevent moisture build up.
- • Over the counter medications contain harsh chemicals that may cause unwanted side effects for your baby. Exploring these natural options is a safe and effective way to treat cradle cap.
When to see a doctor
Although cradle cap is usually normal and harmless, there are some occasions when you should seek medical condition. These include:
Persistent or worsening cradle cap
Typically cradle cap will start to clear up and will disappear in a few weeks or months with regular washing of the scalp. However, if you’ve been using the above treatments and symptoms are becoming worse or aren’t improving at all it is time to see a doctor.
Signs of severe cradle cap to look out for include excessive redness, inflammation, or oozing fluid from the area. If your baby has any of these symptoms they need to be seen by a healthcare professional as there may be a secondary infection present.
Spreading of the cradle cap
If you notice that the cradle cap is spreading beyond the scalp you should take your baby to a healthcare professional for assessment and to prevent further complications.
Excessive itching or discomfort
Cradle cap is not usually uncomfortable for babies, however if you notice that your baby is in pain or is itchy it is important to see your doctor so that they can evaluate the severity and suggest appropriate interventions for your baby.
Anytime you are worried
As with anything to do with your baby, anytime that you are concerned it is always helpful to get advice from your healthcare professional.
Cradle cap is a normal condition for new babies that is thought to be caused by overactive sebaceous glands, hormonal factors, bacterial or fungal factors, environmental factors and even genetic factors. Cradle cap is usually harmless and usually doesn’t cause the baby any discomfort, however it is important to take care of cradle cap to ensure a healthy scalp, improve appearance and reduce the risk of the development of further skin infections.
Prevention and treatment of cradle cap through regular washing, brushing of baby’s scalp and use of natural oils are easy and safe methods to try and remove flakes off the scalp and thus improve your baby’s overall skin health. Even though cradle cap is normal for some babies, it is important to be able to identify when your baby is experiencing severe symptoms, the condition is worsening or causing your baby discomfort. Thus, you can know when you should seek medical help for proper diagnosis and management to ensure the overall wellbeing of your baby.
Written By Lauren Brenton
Endorsed Midwife and Founder of One Mama Midwife Pty Ltd
I’m Loz and I’m an Endorsed Midwife who runs Antenatal Classes in the Sutherland Shire. I have completed a Bachelor of Midwifery and a Master of Midwifery. My favourite area is in the labour ward, this is where you can find me most days. One Mama Midwife came about in the height of Covid in 2020, when so many women were missing out on the chance to have antenatal education. Aimed at empowering you with the tools you require to have the pregnancy, birth and postpartum journey that you want to have, with advice and recommendations you can trust.