There’s nothing quite like a newborn’s delicate skin. It’s oh-so-velvety smooth and smells amazing—our bodies are actually hardwired to want to touch baby, which is why skin-to-skin contact is so important. But that beautiful baby skin sure is sensitive, and your little one is prone to a range of skin conditions from baby acne and baby heat rash to diaper rashes and baby eczema.
What is Baby Eczema?
Eczema—a condition that causes the skin to become red, itchy, and inflamed—is one of the most common skin problems in babies.
There are several types of eczema, but the most common in babies is atopic dermatitis. This type of baby eczema causes dry, scaly, and itchy patches on baby’s skin that often appear on the scalp, forehead, and face. (source)
How Common is Baby Eczema?
The National Eczema Foundation estimates that about 13 percent of all children have atopic dermatitis. But because atopic dermatitis is only one type of eczema (other types include contact dermatitis and cradle cap), the number of children with eczema may be as high as 20 percent when you factor in other types of eczema. (source)
Eczema is on the rise in the United States, Canada, and the UK, as well. According to an article published in Global News, a Canadian news outlet, experts theorize this is because of:
- sterile environments that don’t adequately prepare a baby’s immune system
- the overuse of antibiotics, which affects the immune system
- an increase in inflammatory food, including refined sugar, fried foods, and processed meats
- an increase in cleaning products that contain irritants and artificial perfumes
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What Does Baby Eczema Look Like?
Eczema in a newborn
When that dry, itchy, red patch first showed up, you probably went into research mode and began Googling images of eczema. Here’s the tricky bit: baby eczema doesn’t look like adult eczema. While adults may notice eczema patches on their hands, feet, or torso, babies (from birth to six months of age) get eczema primarily on their faces.
Baby Eczema on the Face
Eczema in an older baby
During the second half of baby’s first year, be on the lookout for eczema on the knees and elbows. Because your baby is crawling and exploring on her hands and knees, pay special attention to keep any eczema patches clean; they can get infected quite easily.
Baby Eczema on Legs and Arms
Eczema in toddlers and older children
Toddlers, which covers the age group 2 through 5, may also start to get eczema around their lips, as well as on their ribs.
Eczema in babies with black and brown skin
According to the National Eczema Foundation, eczema affects more African American babies than any other racial background. About 1 in every 5 — that’s about 20% — African American babies has some form of eczema. This compares to 10.7% of Hispanic babies, 12.1% of white babies, and 13% for Asian and Native American, respectively. (source)
Eczema doesn’t appear red like it does on white skin. Instead of red patches, eczema may cause gray, darker brown, or even purple patches. These discolored patches may still be dry, warm, swollen, itchy, and/or scaly.
What Causes Eczema in Babies?
The first step in preventing eczema is to learn what causes it, and unfortunately, there are many causes.
One of the biggest factors in whether or not a child develops eczema is the child’s own health history, specifically his or her genes. If baby has a relative diagnosed with eczema, he/she is more at-risk for developing eczema as well.
In addition to baby’s unique genetic makeup, environmental triggers affect future flare-ups. The most common triggers include:
- Dry skin: This is more common during the winter, but it can a year-round trigger. To keep baby’s skin hydrated, massage daily with coconut oil, whipped shea butter, or even almond oil.
- Irritants in products: This includes hand and body soap, shampoo, haircare products, lotions, dish detergent, laundry detergent, household cleaning products, and any other products that skin comes in contact with. This post will help you determine safe brands to use.
- Irritants in the air: To reduce indoor air pollution, the Cleveland Clinic suggests having your ducts professionally cleaned, removing carpet from your home, installing carbon monoxide detectors, avoiding conventional indoor air fresheners, and not wearing your shoes inside your home.
- Excessive heat: This includes the heat of summer, as well as the heat of a hot bath. Be sure not to overdress your child and keep a fan on at night.
- Perspiration: Adults and babies alike may find that sweat triggers eczema. Keep babies as cool as possible by dressing them in breathable, organic cotton rather than synthetic fabrics. If you notice that baby is sweating, wipe away the sweat as quickly as possible.
- Allergies to pet dander, pollen, and dust: Note that these triggers are more common in adult eczema, but if you suspect that your baby is sensitive to pet dander, consider using a special vacuum to remove pet hair from your child’s play areas. If you suspect pollen or dust is to blame, use a HEPA air filter to keep the air clean.
- Cow’s milk: For breastfeeding infants, an allergy to cow’s milk or another food in mama’s diet can contribute to eczema in baby. A nursing mama may want to give up dairy for a month to see if it’s causing baby eczema. Other common allergens include gluten and wheat, citrus, coffee, eggs, soy, and nuts.
- Imbalanced gut flora: Babies can inherit an imbalanced glut flora or develop one as a result of antibiotic use (even through mama’s milk!). Consider adding probiotics to your baby’s daily routine. This probiotic in particular, while not cheap, cleared up my friend’s son’s eczema without any other changes.
- Overreactive immune response: Too many white blood cells cause an overactive immune response. White blood cell counts can be altered by stress, poor nutrition, or problems with the enzyme production in the body.
Does Eczema in Babies Go Away?
There is good news: Most children outgrow their eczema.
According to the experts at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, many children see a big improvement in baby eczema by the age of three. About 66 percent of children with childhood or baby eczema “outgrow” it and only suffer from occasional dry skin during their teen years.
If your baby’s eczema does not let up, try keeping a journal to identify the triggers, then work to avoid those triggers. In the meantime, you can ease symptoms by treating baby eczema naturally.
How to Treat Baby Eczema & Natural Remedies
You’ll find plenty of lotions designed to relieve the itching and redness of eczema, but unfortunately many conventional products designed to treat baby eczema are loaded with harmful ingredients like EDTA, PEG, and petroleum products. Yikes! Not exactly what you want to rub on baby’s sensitive skin!
Here’s how to naturally provide relief for your baby.
- Apply coconut oil: What can’t coconut oil do? Known for its moisturizing and anti-bacterial properties, coconut oil is a popular choice for baby’s skincare, but does it work for eczema? According to this double-blind study, it does. When compared to mineral oil, virgin coconut oil was found to be superior.
- Try vitamin B12: This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study revealed that vitamin B12 is a good treatment for children with eczema. Specifically, researchers noted that topical vitamin B12 (you can find some here) was the best.
- Use calendula cream: Calendula cream (where to buy) has been known to help soothe many skin conditions, including baby eczema. This study proved the effectiveness of a marigold (calendula) and rosemary cream by testing it against the known irritant sodium lauryl sulfate.
- Take cod liver oil: Fish intake in older babies helps reduce eczema. If your baby doesn’t like fish, try cod liver oil. Cod liver oil is also beneficial, because it contains vitamin D.
- Take an oatmeal bath: Have you noticed that many eczema products on the shelf contain oatmeal? It’s because oatmeal is soothing to your skin! Make your own oatmeal bath or oatmeal paste. To make a paste, combine 1/4 cup of colloidal oatmeal with enough water to make a paste. You can also swap the water for lavender hydrosol. Some mamas also use manuka honey in their paste. Be careful not to let baby eat the paste, especially if you used honey or hydrosol.
- Try vitamin D supplements: Low levels of vitamin D are associated with eczema. If you don’t get enough sunshine, vitamin D supplements may help. These drops are easy to administer.
- Change your own diet if you’re breastfeeding: If dairy milk is a trigger for your baby, the easiest course of action is to remove dairy from your own diet. (See above for more specific instructions.) Keep a food log if you’re unsure what food is the trigger.
- Take probiotics: This study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Immunology, suggests probiotics do not prevent eczema, but are a successful treatment method. This makes sense considering one of the causes of eczema is gut imbalance.
- Try magnesium: In a 5 percent dilution, magnesium creams were found to relieve eczema and other skin conditions. Need a new bottle of magnesium lotion? Try this magnesium lotion, which is specially formulated for children and babies.
- Try homeopathic remedies: According to a study in the British Journal of Dermatology, homeopathic medicine treated eczema just as well as conventional treatments. Homeopathic medicine is based on symptoms, so the type of homeopathic medicine that you use will depend a lot on what type of eczema your child has and whether it is oozing or dry. A common remedy for atopic dermatitis is Hepar Sulph.
Eczema and Food Allergies
Babies with eczema are at a higher risk than the general population for developing food allergies. In fact, up to 67 percent of infants with severe eczema and 25 percent of infants with mild eczema will develop a food allergy, says Jonathan Spergel M.D., board certified allergist.
- If baby has mild to moderate eczema, early and sustained exposure to allergenic foods, like peanuts, cow’s milk, and eggs, has been shown to decrease this risk by up to 80 percent. (source) When baby starts solids around 6 months, I recommend trying Ready, Set, Food!, a program that gives parents the option to add the most common allergenic foods (eggs, nuts, and milk) to breastmilk, formula, or purees in a safe and effective way
Ready Set Food reduces the risk of developing food allergies by up to 80%
- If baby has severe eczema: Consult your pediatrician before starting early allergen introduction. They may recommend allergy testing prior to introducing any allergens.
What Foods Are Good for Curing Eczema?
Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine.” What great words to live by! Indeed, there are certain foods that help soothe and lessen the symptoms of eczema. Once your baby has been introduced to solid food, consider adding anti-inflammatory foods into his/her diet to reduce eczema symptoms.
Try adding more of these foods into your baby’s diet:
- Fatty fish: Fish consumption helps reduce eczema. If you are worried about mercury consumption, choose fish that are lower on the food chain, like mackerels and sardines. Fish can be added to baby’s diet very early on—from six months and up. However, do not introduce shellfish, which can be an allergen.
- Foods rich in quercetin: Quercetin is actually a pigment (color) in plants, but it has the added benefit of reducing allergic and inflammatory responses. Give baby quercetin-rich foods like blueberries, spinach, cherries, kale. Smash up or puree if need be to avoid a choking hazard.
- Fermented foods: Fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, and yogurt all help to promote a healthy gut, which decreases the likelihood of developing eczema. Many pediatricians suggest starting baby on yogurt around seven to eight months and up, but be sure to purchase organic, grass-fed yogurt and unsweetened that is clearly labeled “with live cultures.”
- Water: This isn’t a food per se, but staying hydrated is extremely important if you have eczema. If you are breastfeeding, just make sure your baby is nursing frequently. Most formula-fed babies are also getting enough water. See this post for more information about when babies can drink water.
Note: If mama is exclusively breastfeeding, she can help baby by eating these foods so that she can pass on the anti-inflammatory benefits to her baby.
What Foods Trigger Eczema Flare-Ups?
Just like some foods can help improve eczema, some foods—inflammatory foods—can make eczema worse.
Cow’s milk is one of the most common triggers of baby eczema. Other common triggers include: eggs, soy, gluten, nuts, fish, and shellfish.
Other inflammatory foods include:
- Refined sugar: Though hopefully you’re not feeding baby processed sugar anyway!
- White bread and other products made from refined, processed flours: These are sneaky ingredients in toddler snacks, such as cereal bars, crackers, and breakfast tarts.
If you aren’t sure what food is causing your baby’s distress, try an elimination diet and keep a food diary. You may be surprised just how many foods can cause flare-ups!
If you are having a hard time pinpointing the triggers, consider getting food sensitivity testing done. (Note: The tests aren’t for infants. The World Allergy Organization recommends a skin prick test for toddlers 18 + months, ideally closer to 24 months.)
Can You Prevent Baby Eczema?
Unfortunately, you cannot prevent eczema with 100 percent certainty. Remember that genetics is a big factor for eczema, but you can minimize your baby’s risk for eczema.
The first and most important step is to avoid the common environmental triggers, as well as the previously listed inflammatory foods.
You’ll also want to:
- Avoid heat and sweat
- Keep nails short and use mittens if baby scratches frequently
- Use breathable natural fabrics like organic cotton only
- Avoid using products (moisturizers included) with fragrances—this includes laundry detergent!
- It may seem obvious, but cigarette smoke (even just being around someone who smokes) can be an irritant
When Should Your Baby See the Doctor?
For most babies, you can treat eczema easily at home using the natural remedies listed above. However, you should call your pediatrician if:
- Eczema patches spread very quickly
- You suspect the patches are infected (this can happen from scratching)
- Eczema isn’t the only sign of allergy (e.g. swollen lips, facial swelling)
- The natural remedies are not providing relief (the rash could be due to other causes, not eczema)
It can be upsetting to see your precious baby covered in itchy red patches, but the good news is that most of time baby eczema is just a short-lived phase. In the meantime, love on baby, try as many natural remedies as you can, keep affected areas clean, and make sure baby’s skin is well-hydrated.
How About You?
Did your baby have eczema? How did you treat it? When did it go away?