Eczema usually starts in infancy, with 65 percent of infants developing symptoms in the first 12 months of life, and 90 percent experiencing them before the age of 5.1
Baby eczema is a dry, itchy condition characterized by tiny red bumps and crusty patches on the skin, which can sometimes ooze fluid or become infected if scratched. Scratching can also thicken, darken or cause scarring over time. As many as 10 percent of infants in the U.S. have some form of eczema.
There are different types of eczema that may affect your baby, but the most common type is called atopic dermatitis (AD). Also known as atopic eczema, this is a long-term (chronic) skin condition that starts with the immune system. It affects the skin’s ability to hold in moisture, hence becoming dry, itchy and easily irritated.2
Baby eczema often goes away by itself, although there is no way to know ahead of time whether your child will outgrow it or not. Fortunately, this skin condition usually becomes less severe with age. In fact, most babies actually outgrow eczema by age 4.3
Causes of Eczema in Babies
The exact cause of eczema is unknown; however, a combination of genes and environmental triggers may increase your child’s risk of developing the skin disorder:
- Eczema can run in families. The tendency to develop eczema is often inherited. Babies who come from families with history of eczema, hay fever (allergic rhinitis), asthma or allergies are more likely to develop eczema.4
- Eczema can be triggered by allergens or irritants in the environment. Allergens, such as food, pollen or pet dander can cause a flare-up. The irritants that can trigger eczema include heat, stress, scratchy fabrics like wool and polyester, chemicals in soaps, fragrances, solvents and detergents.
Skin cells go into overdrive when something outside the body triggers the immune system, causing the skin to flare-up in the form of intense itching, redness and rashes.5
Eczema Is Different for Infants Than It Is for Older Children
The appearance and location of eczema in children changes with age.6
- Infants (first 6 months). The areas mostly affected are the cheeks, scalp, forehead and chin, but it may spread to the neck, chest, hands and legs as well. The affected skin tends to look red and weepy. In most cases, infants rub their skin against bedding to relieve the itch, worsening the irritation.7
- Babies (6 to 12 months). Eczema typically appears on your baby’s elbows and knees, which are places that can be rubbed or scratched easily and frequently, as your baby learns how to crawl. If the eczema becomes infected, you will notice yellowish lesions with oozing and crusting.
- Toddlers (age 2 to 5 years). Your toddler’s skin may look dry, flakey and scaly, and can sometimes thicken and become leather-like (lichenification).8 The area around the mouth and eyelids, creases of the elbows and knees, wrists, hands or ankles are commonly affected.
- Older Children (age 5 years and above). The rash is likely to appear in the folds of the elbows and knees. You may also notice red and itchy patches on your child’s scalp, behind the ears, hands and feet.
Baby Eczema Treatment
Eczema typically comes and goes, but the condition is different from one child to another. One of the best things you can do is to learn the specific type of eczema your child suffers from, and then avoid his/her triggers. Here are other treatment and management tips to remember:9
- Hydrate and cool your baby’s skin with a lukewarm bath. Aside from keeping dry skin at bay, giving your baby a soothing, lukewarm bath may also ease itching. However, keep the bath short (less than 10 minutes) or expose only the parts that you’re washing.
- Apply a moisturizer while your child’s skin is still damp or after bathing. Dryness can make your baby’s skin itchy, especially during winter. Opt for a moisturizer that contains ceramides, and you can also use a fragrance-free cream or petroleum jelly to help lock in the skin’s natural moisture.
- Do not use harsh chemicals. Switch to mild, fragrance-free soaps or non-soap cleansers and shampoos, or those formulated for sensitive skin. In addition, when washing your baby’s clothes and bedding, use a mild, fragrance-free detergent, and do not use fabric softeners.
- Dress your baby comfortably. To prevent flare-ups or aggravating the rash, dress your baby in smooth, natural fabrics like 100 percent cotton, which will allow the skin to breathe as well. Do not bundle up your child in more clothing than is necessary in order to keep him cool and comfortable.
- Avoid stress. Babies with eczema may react to stress by flushing, resulting in itchiness and skin irritation, and ramping up symptoms of eczema.