Tips for Treating Cradle Cap in Babies at Home

Cradle cap is a common skin condition affecting 10% of babies during their first year. It is a harmless scaly rash appearing on the baby’s scalp — not caused by lack of skin care or poor hygiene. There is no prevention, and it normally disappears in a few weeks. The appearance of the rash is more uncomfortable for the parent than for the baby.

Key takeaways:
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    Cradle cap is common in infants from the age of three weeks to one year.
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    A scaly yellowish rash appears on the baby’s scalp.
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    It is not contagious or painful.
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    Treatment can be done at home.
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    It may come back during the first year of infancy.

The medical term for cradle cap is pityriasis capitis, a type of infantile seborrheic dermatitis (ISD). Most infants with ISD are between a few weeks to three months of age. Unfortunately, there is no prevention; the condition will simply run its course but may sometimes recur more than once. Less commonly, toddlers can have a cradle cap up to four years of age.

The cause of ISD isn’t known, but there are two theories suspected:

  • The mother’s hormones circulating through the baby's body are thought to play a role in overactive sebaceous glands. The glands produce an oil called sebum that builds up and causes plaques to form.
  • Malassezia, a common fungus in babies, breaks down the oil and leaves dry, scaling skin behind.

Cradle cap is neither painful nor itchy, and it does not interfere with a baby’s eating or sleeping patterns. It is easily diagnosed by the type and location of the lesions. Studies have shown that a higher percentage of babies with cradle cap have family members with atopic dermatitis or asthma.

How is ISD diagnosed?

A doctor diagnoses cradle cap with a visual examination. They confirm an ISD diagnosis if the baby’s scalp appears with yellowish scaly, flaky skin that doesn’t itch or cause pain. Blood testing or lab work is not needed.

What does cradle cap look like?

  • Red skin with crusty brown or yellowish scales on the baby’s scalp.
  • The scales feel waxy or greasy and flaky to the touch.
  • The patches can cover parts of the scalp, forehead, cheeks, and ears.

The cradle cap will not cause baldness or problems with hair growth. Occasionally, if a small amount of hair comes out with the scales, it will grow back in a few weeks. Adult seborrheic dermatitis (ASD) occurs in teenagers and adults. The flaky scales are commonly known as dandruff and are treated with medicated shampoos. However, infants should not be given medicated shampoos unless prescribed by a doctor.

Home treatments for cradle cap

Gently wash the baby’s scalp every day using mild baby shampoo.

Massage an emollient (such as Vaseline, shea butter, or baby oil) over the scalp and leave it on for at least 20 minutes (overnight is best) prior to shampooing.

Over-the-counter lotions for cradle cap are available in place of emollients.

After shampooing, use a soft hairbrush, toothbrush, or a soft-toothed comb to remove scales gently.

Continue daily shampooing for a few weeks to prevent reoccurrence.

What not to do

When caring for a baby's scalp, do not pick or scratch the scaly areas. Using fingernails or any sharp instrument can scratch the baby’s head causing bleeding. Use only soft bristles or a baby comb on the scalp. Baby’s skin is fragile, and scraping off the scales can break the skin and provide an avenue for infection. Be sure to rinse all shampoo and oils off the scalp to prevent build-up, which worsens the condition.

When to notify your doctor

When you first notice the skin changes on your baby’s scalp, you can start using home remedies to treat the cradle cap. This is often enough, and a doctor’s visit isn’t necessary. If you notice any increased redness, swelling, or drainage to the affected area, that can indicate an infection, and you should notify your pediatrician. If there is no improvement after a week of shampooing and brushing the scalp, your doctor may want to prescribe an anti-fungal ointment, hydrocortisone cream, or anti-seborrheic shampoo. Also, if the scaly rash appears in other areas of the body or becomes painful, let the child's doctor know.

Atopic Dermatitis, or eczema, is similar to cradle cap but more severe and uncomfortable. It's not as common as a cradle cap and is easily distinguished by its severity. It is a chronic skin condition that usually begins in infancy and early childhood. The skin develops a red rash that may occur anywhere on the body. It is incredibly itchy and can be painful. Scratching leads to increased redness, inflammation, and weeping areas. Medication can help with pain and itching, and a doctor's examination is recommended.

Cradle cap is a common, harmless skin condition that usually runs its course and will go away with or without home remedies. When babies develop a scaly rash on their heads, chances are it is a cradle cap and will resolve on its own. Simple home remedies can help speed up the healing process, but it is not uncomfortable for the baby.


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