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Cradle cap


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Cradle cap
Cradle cap, also known as infant or neonatal seborrhoeic dermatitis, are greasy, yellow, scaly skin patches that form on the scalp of babies and sometimes also on their ears, eyebrows and eyelids. It is a very common condition affecting about half of all babies. Cradle cap usually develops within the first 3 months of the baby being born and gradually disappears as the baby gets older. Sometimes, it will continue into toddler stage.
The cause of cradle cap is not properly understood. It is not an allergic reaction, an infection or caused by poor hygiene. It is possibly related to overactive sebaceous glands in the skin of the scalp which produce an excess of an oil called sebum. The reason why the sebaceous glands should be overactive is also not clear, but one theory is that some of the mother's hormones remain in the baby's circulation for several weeks after the baby is born and it is these hormones that stimulate the glands. The excess sebum causes old skin cells to stick to the scalp instead of drying up and falling off as they would do usually.
Cradle cap is characterised by greasy, yellow, scaly patches on the scalp. The scales can appear cracked or even weeping. This may eventually cause the baby's scalp to be covered in a thick crusty layer. Sometimes there is hair loss when the patches fall off. Similar patches are also often seen around the ears, the eyebrows or eyelids, in the nappy area and skin creases. The condition is not itchy, causes no distress, is temporary and is harmless. It is not infectious or contagious. It is important not try to scratch or pick at the flakes as this may cause an infection.
Creams or shampoos that have been specifically made to treat cradle cap are available from local pharmacies. The products contain mild detergents or keratolytics such as salicylic acid that help loosen the scales.

For older children, over-the-counter dandruff or medicated shampoos may reduce flaking and dryness.
When to consult your pharmacist
You can obtain advice about cradle cap from your pharmacist. Your pharmacist will be able to recommend suitable baby shampoos and creams that will help, and can reassure you that cradle cap will not harm your baby. If your pharmacist suspects that the cradle cap has become infected or if the condition affecting your baby is not cradle cap, you will be advised to see your doctor.
When to consult your doctor
If the treatment does not work, or if the baby has eczema on the face or body, see your doctor. If the cradle cap becomes inflamed or infected, a course of antibiotic or antifungal cream may be prescribed. A mild steroid cream may be recommended if the skin has become inflamed.
Living with cradle cap
It can be distressing, particularly for first time parents, to see cradle cap on their baby's head. The natural reaction is to think that there may be something wrong with the baby or they are not looking after the baby properly. These are quite normal reactions, but cradle cap is not a cause for concern and you must not worry. Cradle cap is not infectious and does not present any risk to the baby, to other children, or to other members of the family. Talk to your health visitor or pharmacist if you need further reassurance.

Although cradle cap will eventually clear on its own, gentle washing will prevent the build up of scale. Gently massage olive oil, petroleum jelly or baby oil into the scalp at night to soften the scaly patches. Comb the hair with a soft baby brush in the morning and wash the baby's hair with a mild baby shampoo. Do not use preparations containing peanut oil (arachis oil) as these may cause the baby to develop an allergy to peanuts and nuts later in life.

Do not be tempted to pick the scales from the baby's scalp. You risk breaking the skin and causing an infection.
Useful Tips
  • Loosen or remove clothing covering the scalp to make the baby more comfortable
  • Wash your baby's head daily with a baby shampoo
  • Do not worry, although unsightly cradle cap is temporary and will disappear

Reviewed on 11 October 2010