Dealing with Cradle Cap, That Flaky Stuff on Your Baby’s Head

Almost immediately after I brought my third baby (incidentally, my first son) home from the hospital, I noticed something strange on his head:

There, mixed in with the dark brown hair I found so shocking after I had been expecting him to be blonde like his father, were crusty, yellow flakes that I could only describe as scaly. I was horrified. Did he have some kind of disease? Was I not washing him properly? Could it be–OMG–leprosy? 

Fortunately for all of us, he did not have leprosy, but my son did have a pretty textbook case of cradle cap. But what exactly is cradle cap and what can you do if your baby has it? 

Image via Unsplash/ Echo Grid

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Cradle cap is essentially flaky, scaly patches on your baby's skin. They can range from just a few flakes to large patches all over your baby's head. They tend to appear white, yellow, or skin-colored on your baby's head and they can occur shortly after birth or appear weeks or even months later. 

What causes cradle cap? 

Most of the time, there is no real known cause of cradle cap. In some cases, it can be caused by over-washing your baby's head, or a build-up of shampoo (like if you don't rinse the shampoo off well enough with fresh water and use the soapy bath water, for example), but in other cases, it's just the way your baby's skin is shedding for now. Some doctors think that cradle cap is common in newborns as a result of leftover hormones after birth, which cause an over-production of oil glands that lead to the scaly patches. 

Treatment for cradle cap

According to Healthline, cradle cap actually doesn't usually require any special medical treatment, as it tends go away on its own for babies, especially as they grow older. It can last as little as a few weeks all the way up to months. 

If the cradle cap doesn't go away on its own, or if you feel like trying to do something to help speed up the process, Healthline also suggests that you wash your baby's hair once a day with a mild baby shampoo and moisturize your baby's head with an emollient like mineral oil a few hours before shampooing. 

However, I will tell you from personal experience that I found that with my babies that had cradle cap that shampooing every day actually seemed to make the cradle cap worse. For us, skipping baths more frequently or even skipping hair washing all together when we did bathe the baby really helped to improve the cradle cap. I think it's different for every baby though, so experiment with shampooing and see if that helps; if it doesn't, try skipping a few days and see if it gets better!

The other thing that I found really helped with cradle cap was to “brush” the flakes off with a small comb. The comb that they send you home with from the hospital was particularly handy for this, as it seemed to be just the perfect size to loosen and remove the scales gently. I found that the best time to brush the baby's scalp was right after a bath, as the scales seemed to be softened and loosened then. Just be careful not to tug at them too much or brush too hard to get the scales off. 

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When to see a doctor

In some rare cases, cradle cap can be more serious than just a few pesky flakes on your baby's head. Once in a while, the scales can actually be the result of a fungal infection, although it's difficult to distinguish because cradle cap from a fungal infection will still look like “normal” cradle cap. The only real way to know for sure is to visit your doctor and try some anti-fungal shampoo or medication.  

You should see a doctor if your baby's case appears to be getting worse, if it's bleeding or looks infected (such as really red, irritated, or has any areas of pus), or if it's lasting more than a month or so. You should also bring up your baby's cradle cap with your pediatrician if your little one seems uncomfortable or in pain as a result of the flakes. 

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Other tips for dealing with cradle cap

Whatever you do, don't do what I was always tempted to do and pick at those little flakes of skin on your baby's head. Not only is it actually painful for your baby (I mean, those flakes are still attached), but pulling them off can lead to irritation or a skin infection and in some cases, even make the cradle cap worse. Overall, if your baby has cradle cap, don't panic — the condition is, in most cases, totally normal and can be managed at home. And if all else fails, there's always cute little baby hats, right?

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Dealing with Cradle Cap, That Flaky Stuff on Your Baby’s Head

Chaunie Brusie is a writer, mom of four, and founder of The Stay Strong Mom, a community + gift box service for moms after loss. ... More

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