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Cradle Cap

Cradle cap is a seborrheic dermatitis similar to dandruff.  It is the result of the skin cells on a baby’s scalp growing at a faster rate than they are flaking off.  Normally old skin cells flake off and are replaced with new healthy skin cells, but when a baby has cradle cap her new skin cells grow before the old cells have a chance to shed, leaving crusty scaly looking patches of skin cells on her scalp.

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What does cradle cap look like?

Cradle cap looks like brownish or yellowish scaly patches of skin on baby’s scalp.  If the patches cover most of the scalp it can look like baby has a “cap” of brownish scaly skin covering her head.  The flaky patches might start off looking similar to dandruff, flaking off easily by gently washing and combing the scalp.  More severe cases of cradle cap may cause heavier flaking or the scaly patches may become crusty and stick to the scalp. 

What causes cradle cap?

Cradle cap is the result of overactive sebaceous glands (oil glands that lubricate the scalp and hair follicles).  The oil secretions cause the old accumulating skin cells to stick to the scalp instead of flaking off.  We are not sure what causes the overactive sebaceous glands in new babies, but researchers think it might have something to do with the hormonal changes that take place at the end of a woman’s pregnancy.  Before a woman gives birth, her body releases hormones to help prepare baby to be born.  These hormones also stimulate the oil glands.  This stimulation may increase the oils being produced by your baby’s sebaceous glands, and with the combination of extra skin cells and extra oils, baby is more apt to developing baby skin conditions like cradle cap or baby acne.

What can you do to treat cradle cap?

If the cradle cap is mild, you don’t really need to treat it.  It may look ugly but it probably isn’t bothering your baby.  You can try washing it with a mild baby shampoo and gently brushing off the flakes.

If washing and brushing isn’t helping, you can try a method your grandmother may have used, good old fashioned baby oil.   Using baby oil, mineral oil, or petroleum jelly, massage your baby’s scalp.  Leave the oil on the scalp long enough to lubricate and soften the scales.  Then gently brush the scalp with a brush.  Do not pick at the scales as this can irritated baby’s skin or cause infection, and you may pull off bits of her hair.  Make sure to follow up with a gentle shampoo of her scalp to remove the baby oil.  Leaving baby oil sit on her scalp will increase the oils on her scalp, causing clogged pores and making the scales even stickier.

If the cradle cap doesn’t go away with washing, brushing or baby oil treatments, you may need to talk to your doctor.  He may recommend an over the counter or prescription shampoo to treat baby’s scalp.  Make sure to be careful with baby’s eyes when using prescription shampoos because they are not gentle like baby shampoos.

Preventing cradle cap

Since cradle cap is caused by oil secretions and extra skin cells, extra sweating can make cradle cap worse.  Keeping a hat on your baby may cause your baby’s scalp to sweat and the hat may trap this sweat near your baby’s skin.  Hats are necessary for keeping your baby’s head warm when you go outside and to protect his scalp from the cold or sun, but they can be removed when you are indoors, as long as the areas is kept warm.  If your baby has cradle cap or if you are starting to notice flaky patches, you may want to avoid keeping her in a hat as much as possible when you are around the house.


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