What is Cradle Cap? Treatment, Causes and Prevention

You wake up one morning to discover crusty, flaking patches on your two-month-old’s scalp and what appears to be dandruff throughout their hair. Don’t worry! It’s likely not a sign of poor hygiene or even a rash. Rather, baby is likely just among the many infants who develop the noninfectious skin condition known as “cradle cap.” Read on to learn more, including how to get rid of cradle cap.

What is Cradle Cap on Babies?

Seborrheic dermatitis is a flaking of the skin that can occur on various places of baby’s body including behind the ears, along the eyebrows, or in crease areas such as the armpits or diaper region. However, when such flaking occurs on baby’s scalp, it is more aptly named cradle cap. Other common names for cradle cap include crib cap, milk crust, crusta lacteal, honeycomb disease, and pityriasis capitis.

You’ve likely heard at least one of these names before and for good reason: cradle cap affects roughly 1 in every 10 children up to five. For a vast majority of babies, the flaking of cradle cap first presents at three months of age.

What Causes Cradle Cap?

If you’re hoping to find cradle cap causes, you’re not alone. Scientists still aren’t exactly sure what causes cradle cap on babies, but some suspect it may be tied to hormonal shifts related to pregnancy. It’s possible these hormones stimulate overproduction in baby’s sebaceous oil glands. Alternatively, a yeast that grows in sebum known as malassezia is another possible culprit.

Regardless, you can rest assured that cradle cap is not an indication of inadequate cleanliness nor is it contagious.

Cradle Cap Symptoms

  •   Typical signs of cradle cap include patches across the scalp of scaling or crusting skin.
  •   The patches may be dry or greasy with white or yellow skin flakes and mild redness.
  •   The patches aren’t itchy or painful, and the condition doesn’t cause fever or fatigue.

How to Treat Cradle Cap

While the condition is largely harmless and shouldn’t irritate baby, there are several cradle cap treatments to consider at home. Your pediatrician can be a great source of information and confidence about what to do for cradle cap.

Steps to Care for Cradle Cap

  •   Wash Baby’s Hair & Gently Brush Away Scales:

    Wet baby’s hair and scalp before lathering a mild shampoo in the hair. Using a soft baby cloth, massage the affected areas before rinsing clean. While the scalp is still damp, use a soft bristled baby brush or new toothbrush to lift loose flakes. Gently brush in one direction, slowly make your way across the scalp, and gently remove any loosened flakes that fall into the hair. This can be done daily.

  •   Hydrate Baby’s Skin:

    For more stubborn cases of cradle cap, apply a thin layer of baby oil to baby’s scalp. Very gently massage the oil across the entire scalp for 60 seconds, being especially delicate near baby’s soft spot, then let sit for 10-15 minutes before washing the oil out completely with mild baby shampoo. This can be done daily in conjunction with the washing recommendation listed above.

  •   Avoid Picking:

    When you’re in the thick of it, it can be easy to hear yourself asking, “How long does cradle cap last?!” and even find yourself tempted to scratch at the flaking skin. Stay patient.

When to Contact a Health Care Professional

On occasion, the buildup of skin cells related to cradle cap can foster a yeast infection, particularly if it occurs in crease areas of the skin. Signs of a yeast infection include more prominent reddening of the affected area and itchiness. If this occurs or if the cradle cap begins to spread beyond the areas mentioned above, it’s best to call your doctor so they may determine whether a prescription is needed.

Otherwise, consider the cradle cap care options discussed above, and simply mention any related concerns during your next well-baby appointment with your pediatrician. Though some children may experience cradle cap until they are as old as four, it typically resolves itself by baby’s first birthday. So chances are, you’ll be kissing baby’s flake-free head again in no time.