Cradle cap

Baby with cradle cap

If you’re finding dry, yellowy brown skin on your baby's scalp, she's probably got cradle cap. This is a fairly stress-free condition for babies, although parents tend to find it strangely fascinating and slightly gross. Your baby probably won't realise she has it, but you’ll want to get it cleared up as it does look rather scaly. Here’s our guide to why babies get cradle cap and what you can do to help clear it up.

What is cradle cap?
What causes cradle cap?
What are the symptoms of cradle cap?
How do you treat cradle cap?
What Mumsnetters say about cradle cup?

What is cradle cap?

Cradle cap is the common term for seborrheic dermatitis (in older children and adults it's just known as 'dandruff'). It looks like largeish yellow or brown scales and primarily affects babies of up to eight months old, with babies under two months particularly susceptible. Because babies’ hair is thin, and there isn’t much of it, cradle cap is highly visible, so you’ll notice it straight away. While it mostly affects young babies, children of up to three years old can get cradle cap.

Fortunately, cradle cap isn’t itchy, so babies aren’t inclined to scratch their heads. You should refrain from picking it, however, tempting though it is. Some Mumsnetters find the urge too great to resist, but picking could make your baby’s head sore and cause infection, which would be a shame, as cradle cap on its own really is no big deal.

The greasy flakes on your baby’s head may look horrible but they’re not a sign of poor hygiene or lax parenting, so you've nothing to feel guilty about. It’s also not contagious, so for goodness' sake don’t accuse anyone's kids of giving it to her (and you don't need to worry about passing it on either).

What causes cradle cap?

If there’s a family history of eczema then your baby could be more susceptible to cradle cap. Nobody is certain about the direct causes, although some experts connect cradle cap to hormones left in your baby’s body from when she was in the womb. These hormones stimulate secretions from the oil glands in your baby’s skin and produce an oily substance known as sebum, which makes the flakes and your baby's hair sticky and matted. Fortunately, she hasn't got any big nights out planned just yet.

My son had cradle cap really badly. Olive oil worked fantastically to get rid of it but, whatever you do, don't pick the flakes (however much you might be tempted) as that can cause infection.

What are the symptoms of cradle cap?

Those yellow flakes are the key symptom. And you’ll know them when you see them. As they fall off your baby’s head, they might leave the skin underneath looking slightly red, although her scalp is probably not as sore as it appears. The odd bit of hair might come away with the flakes, too, but it’ll soon grow back.

Cradle cap tends to appear on children’s heads but it can affect other parts too, including the knees, ears, face, neck and nappy areas (although when it appears in those areas, you’d just call it eczema). You sometimes find it on baby's eyelids, too.

Baby massage

How do you treat cradle cap?

Cradle cap will go away of its own accord, after a few weeks or possibly months, but there are things you can do to speed up the process and prevent the build-up of too much flakiness.

  • Gently massage baby oil into your baby’s scalp. This will soften the affected area and soothe your baby’s skin.
  • Wash your baby’s hair with baby shampoo, ideally one that’s designed for dry and flaky scalps. Mumsnetters have lots of recommendations for the best shampoos for cradle cap, and you can speak to your pharmacist or health visitor about it, too.
  • Gently brush your baby’s hair after washing to dislodge flakes (use a soft brush).
  • Put vegetable oil on the affected area and leave overnight (put a piece of muslin beneath your baby’s head to protect her bedding). Wash out the oil in the morning with shampoo. As ever, be careful to keep the shampoo out of your baby’s eyes.

Do I need to take my baby to the doctor for cradle cap?

It does go away by itself eventually but I thought it looked horrible, so I put oil on my son's hair and left it overnight. In the morning, I combed it out very easily.

Not unless you think it might be infected, or if the eczema is spreading to other parts of your baby’s body. If that's the case speak to your doctor. They might prescribe an anti-fungal cream to clear up any rash, or even steroids or antibiotics, but they will be able to solve the problem. You should also take your baby to the doctor if eczema causes:

  • Bleeding
  • Itching
  • Swelling

What Mumsnetters say about cradle cap

“I got rid of my daughter’s cradle cap by putting baby oil in her hair in the morning, leaving it in all day until bath-time, then using a baby comb to loosen it and wash it out. It took two attempts to get rid of it all.”

“My daughter had terrible cradle cap and eczema for which we got referred to a dermatologist. The doctor told me to put olive oil on the cradle cap for a few days until it got soft, then to pick it all off. It took a few days but I picked it all off (while feeding her – it was lots of fun!). She still gets a little bit of it now but she's never had it as badly again.”

“We massaged almond oil into my son’s head after his bath. We left it overnight, used a muslin under his head to protect the sheet, then in the morning used a soft baby brush to brush out loosened flakes. We did this every night and morning for about a week. It got rid of the cradle cap and my son has never had a recurrence.”

“I massaged the oil in 30 minutes before a bath, combed through backwards, then washed the head. I wanted to pick but restrained myself.”

“God, how satisfying is picking it off? Especially the big bits. One of the great pleasures of having children.”

“Both my sons had cradle cap so badly they looked like aliens! My aunt, who is a health visitor, told me to cover their heads in Vaseline overnight then, in the morning, brush the Vaseline off with a soft toothbrush. It worked a treat.”