Is there anything more irresistible than velvety baby skin? Because we’re so used to that oh-so touchable softness, seeing red, scaly patches on your baby’s skin can come as a shock. If you've noticed dry, flaky rashes on your peanut, your little one might be dealing with baby eczema, a skin condition that affects about one in 10 children.

Of course, just because baby eczema is common doesn't mean it won’t worry you. Here’s everything you need to know about baby eczema—including the steps you can take to give your wee one some much-needed eczema relief.

What is baby eczema?

Eczema (aka atopic dermatitis) is a common skin condition that occurs when someone doesn’t have enough of a protein called filaggrin in the outer layer of their skin. Filaggrin helps keep the skin barrier strong, so having a filaggrin deficiency makes it more difficult for a baby’s skin to hold moisture and keep out bacteria and irritants…which causes the skin to be dry, bumpy, and mega itchy.

Eczema tends to come and go, meaning you’ll cycle through periods where your child doesn't have symptoms (known as remission) and stints where they'll have flare-ups, and the rash gets worse.

Baby eczema often appears for the first time around 3 months, but that telltale rash can show up any time before your tyke’s 2nd birthday. Some kids will outgrow eczema around age 4, but for others, this uncomfortable skin condition may stick around…even lasting into adulthood.

Is cradle cap eczema?

While cradle cap is a type of dermatitis, it’s not eczema. Cradle cap (also called seborrheic dermatitis) comes during the first year and brings little flaky scalp scales that are waxy or oily. There can be build up on the skin right over the soft spot, between the eyebrows, on the forehead and behind the ears. It’s usually caused by excess skin oil (and insufficient soap and water).

Why do babies get eczema?

While a baby’s environment plays a role in eczema, it can be genetic, meaning eczema runs in families, too. Oftentimes baby eczema goes hand-in-hand with other conditions, like seasonal allergies, hay fever, or asthma. Plus, there's a 30% chance if your kiddo has eczema, they will also have some type of food allergy. (But foods themselves do not cause baby eczema.)

Can baby eczema be prevented?

There’s no surefire way to prevent eczema in babies. But keeping your baby’s skin well-moisturized by applying cream or ointment at least twice a day can help. In fact, research suggests that applying petroleum jelly on high-risk babies from birth may help prevent eczema from developing. There’s also some evidence that exclusive breastfeeding for a baby’s first 3 to 4 months may decrease the incidence of eczema in the first two years.

Is baby eczema contagious?

While eczema isn't contagious, it can make your baby more prone to skin infections. The reason? People with eczema have less of the protein filaggrin in their skin. Normally filaggrin acts like a sentry maintaining a strong barrier to keep viruses and bacteria out, so with less of it, nasty germs can more easily sneak through, boosting the risk of infection. Plus, dry skin associated with baby eczema can crack, allowing bacteria, viruses, and other germs to get inside your little one’s body.

What does eczema in babies look like?

One of the least fun parts of a parent’s job description is ID’ing rashes and other icky illnesses—kids can be susceptible to all sorts of rashes. But if it doesn't itch, then you can probably rule out eczema as the culprit. Of course, your child's healthcare provider will be able to make a diagnosis, so be sure to ring them up if you think your little one might have eczema.

Baby eczema is a dry, slightly bumpy rash on red irritated skin (and can be pretty itchy). The rash usually pops up in a few patches on Baby’s scalp, cheeks, or trunk, but it classically spreads into the sweaty, deep creases of the body: inside the elbows, arm pit, fat rolls, behind the knees, and under the earlobes. A flare-up can look red and even get raw and weepy, or oozing…like a little paper cut. On darker skin, eczema often looks reddish-brown. (Baby eczema usually does not develop in the diaper area.)

What are symptoms of baby eczema?

In babies, eczema symptoms most commonly affect the scalp, face, neck, elbows, and knees. As infants grow, eczema symptoms can also appear inside elbows, on the back knees, neck creases, around the mouth, and around the wrists, hands, and ankles. Common baby eczema symptoms include:

  • Severe itchiness (Baby eczema is often called “the itch that rashes.”)

  • Dry or tender skin

  • Redness in the skin

  • Scaly or cracked skin

  • Thickened skin

  • Bumps that can leak fluid then crust over

  • Symptoms may be more noticeable at night

Here’s an age-by-age guide to children’s eczema symptoms:

  • Infants: Red, dry patches usually on the scalp, forehead, cheeks, and around the mouth…but not in the diaper area.

  • 6 to 12 months: Look for dry, red patches on Baby’s elbows and knees, too.

  • 2 to 5 years: The folds of your bub’s elbows and knees, their arms and hands, and around their eyes and mouth may appear dry and red, and more scaly or flaky than before.

  • Over 5 years: At this age, eczema is often found in the folds of the eyelids, neck, elbows, and knees and often on hands, too.

What triggers baby eczema?

Eczema flare-ups are often triggered by irritating detergents, that’s why we recommend washing your little one’s clothes in a very mild baby-friendly soap. While eating certain foods may trigger an eczema rash, the American Academy of Dermatology Association notes that food is usually not considered an eczema trigger unless a child with severe eczema is not responding well to topical treatments, or their parent has clearly observed a specific food trigger. Eczema flare-ups can also be set off by:

  • Soaps and shampoos (especially bubble bath)

  • Contact with animals (dander)

  • Pollen

  • Wool

  • Dry air

  • Heat and excessive sweating

  • New clothes that have not been prewashed to remove the chemicals

  • Contact with cold sores (This virus can cause a serious skin infection in little ones with eczema.) 

Do baths trigger baby eczema?

While long and hot baths are triggering, a short, not-hot bath can be soothing for your baby’s skin. (Heat can inflame symptoms.) Stick to mild, unscented non-soap cleansers and be sure to gently towel dry your baby’s skin immediately afterward. Then, apply a moisturizer or ointment to lock-in moisture.

How to Treat Baby Eczema

While there’s no cure for eczema, there are several things you can do to help soothe your little one’s rash and mitigate flare-ups. By treating your baby’s eczema as soon as you spot it, you can help prevent the condition from getting worse. Here are some baby eczema treatment strategies:

Avoid external baby eczema triggers. Naturally, it helps to figure out your child’s eczema triggers…and avoid them. For instance, if you notice that your lovebug gets a rash after wearing their cute wool romper, you know what to do. Try very mild cleansers, allergy-free shampoo, nothing with fragrance. Switch what you use to wash your clothes. And use a humidifier if the air in your home is dry.

Zero in on possible food triggers. Figuring out if or what food may be shifting Baby’s rash into overdrive can be tricky. While evidence supporting specialized baby formula and elimination diets in nursing parents is limited, your doctor may recommend trying a hypoallergenic infant formula and/or for nursing parents to avoid possible food triggers. Never embark on an elimination diet without the approval and guidance of a physician.  

Evaluate your baby’s solid food diet. For babies eating solid food, you may be advised  to do a “food challenge” to help you find which foods are causing the flare-up. But know that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it’s actually quite rare that certain foods cause an eczema rash flare. If you think food might be the culprit, talk to your doctor before dabbling in any restrictive dietary changes.

Dress your baby in soft fabrics. Opting for 100% organic cotton bodysuits is always wise! And when washing them, don’t try to up the softness with fabric softeners or fabric sheets in the dryer, which can irritate a little one’s sensitive skin.

Start an eczema-safe skincare routine. While your tiny tot doesn’t need an elaborate regimen, there are ways to take care of a baby’s delicate skin when they have eczema. These include:

  • Keep the skin lubricated. Moisturize your baby’s skin twice a day (or as often as needed) with a fragrance-free moisturizer, keeping in mind that thick creams and ointments, like petroleum jelly, are generally more effective than lotions or oils. Creams with emollients and/or ceramides help create a protective barrier and those with humectants (like as glycerol or glycerin) can help with moisture absorption. (When trying a new moisturizer on your little one, always test it on a small area of their skin first.)

  • Treat your baby’s skin creases this way. If the creases of Baby's skin are red and irritated, you’ll want to keep them dry. That means avoiding sweaty situations, like excessive heat, synthetic clothes (cotton is best), and keeping the skin folds dry with a dusting of corn starch powder one to two times a day. (Do not use talcum powder, that can cause serious problems if inhaled.)

  • Offer soothing 5- to 10-minute baths. Give your bub a bath daily or every other day using a mild, unscented non-soap cleanser and avoid bubble baths since some soaps can trigger a flare-up. Only wash your little one’s dirtiest bits and make sure the water isn't too hot, because heat makes symptoms worse.

  • Pat your baby dry. Once tubby-time is over, immediately gently pat your bub dry with a towel, and quickly massage in the cream. This locks the moisture from the bath into the skin and helps reduce the itching.

  • Keep nails short. Because your child will try to scratch, keep their nails short, or try mittens for babies so they can't worsen the rash by itching. (Learn how to easily trim Baby's nails.)

  • Ask about corticosteroids. Many doctors recommend using over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream or ointment two to three times a day for a few days, to calm down the rash. You don’t want to use OTC cortisone on the face for too many days. Talk to your doctor to see if a stronger prescription cream may be necessary.

  • Consider wet wraps. To help control the itch, ask your pediatrician about applying wet wraps post-bath. They’ll likely advise you to smear on any moisturizer and/or prescribed medicine after tub-time. Then, put your baby in damp pajamas with dry pajamas on top. (Soak PJs or a bodysuit in warm water. Wring out until damp, but not dripping.) Be sure the room is warm enough, so your child doesn’t catch a chill. Keep the wet pajamas on for at least 30 minutes (up to overnight) and reapply moisturizer once it’s time to remove the wraps.

Will baby eczema go away?

It depends. Some children outgrow eczema by the time they reach 4. But others may be dealing with eczema longer...and possibly into adulthood. Your child may go through periods when their eczema flares—and periods of time with the condition recedes (aka remission). Children with eczema tend to experience the most flare-ups in the winter, when the air is cold and dry.

When should I see a doctor about baby eczema?

If you suspect that your baby has eczema, speak with your child’s doctor. Remember, early treatment can help prevent your baby’s eczema from getting worse. While eczema can often be managed by a pediatrician, seeing a pediatric dermatologist might be in the cards. It’s also important to reach out to your child’s doctor if your kiddo’s eczema has caused any little breaks in their skin, which paves the way to infection. Call your doctor if you notice:

  • Yellow or honey-colored crusting or scabbing

  • Oozing, weeping, or blistering skin

  • Painful rash

  • Fever or acting otherwise sick

  • Rash that isn’t improving with treatment

Dealing with eczema can be stressful (and, yes, kind of icky), but your provider can help you come up with a treatment plan to keep your kiddo comfortable in their skin!

More Help With Your Baby’s Skin:

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.