What is cradle cap and how to help a baby though it

Cradle cap can be a bit concerning if a mum hasn’t seen it before on a baby. However, cradle cap is actually a common skin condition that affects a lot of young babies under three months of age. Cradle cap appears as thick, waxy, yellow crusts on your baby’s scalp but it is not painful nor itchy. The good news is that it usually clears up by itself after a few months and it is not contagious or caused by poor hygiene. Babies with cradle cap are otherwise well, but some parents prefer to remove the crusts because they don’t like the look of it. As well as on the scalp, cradle cap can also appear in your baby’s eyebrows.

Some signs and symptoms of cradle cap:

  • Yellow, greasy, waxy scales or flakes on the scalp, or sometimes the eyebrows
  • Reddening of the skin, which sometimes occurs due to eczema developing underneath the cradle cap.

What causes cradle cap?

Cradle cap is a form of dermatitis that causes inflammation of the oil glands in the skin, which are called the sebaceous glands. The type of dermatitis is called seborrhoeic dermatitis. Sebaceous glands help ‘waterproof’ the skin by making a slightly greasy substance called sebum. Babies are born with active sebaceous glands because they have been living in their mother’s uterus. Once a baby is about three months old, the sebaceous glands become inactive until puberty.

 Treatments for cradle cap

Cradle cap usually gets better on its own without treatment. However, there are some things you can do may help it improve a bit faster:

  • Loosen the crusts by applying a light moisturising cream or lotion to the scalp. You can also use some oils like apricot or olive oil, baby oil or Vaseline into the crusts before bathing your baby. The next morning, wash your baby’s hair with a gentle baby shampoo, gently lifting the crusts off with a soft brush (an unused soft toothbrush can be good for this) a comb or a wet washer. Try this each day until your baby’s scalp looks clearer.
  • You can also use a special baby shampoo that are developed to treat cradle cap.
  • Don’t force the crusts, because this might make your baby’s skin bleed.
  • The cradle cap may come back, even when treated properly, because the glands can keep making too much sebum for a few months. If this happens, repeat the treatment.

When to see you doctor

Sometimes the skin under the crusts of cradle cap can become infected. The skin can become inflamed and may weep. If you think is that case, or your baby becomes unwell, take your baby to be checked by a doctor. Your baby may need a combination mild corticosteroid and anti-yeast cream such as Hydrozole cream, or antibiotics to clear the infection.

If the cradle cap continues after your baby is three months old or it is very itchy for your baby, it may be eczema of the scalp and will need different treatment. Some shampoos and moisturising creams can make it worse. If your baby’s cradle cap isn’t getting better or seems to be spreading to other areas of the body, including the face, take your baby to see your GP, paediatrician or Maternal and Child Health Nurse.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.