Newborn and infant skin is sensitive, so how you take care of your baby’s skin is very important. Exposure to chemicals, dyes and fragrances that an adult could ignore can be overwhelming for the delicate balance of an infant’s skin. The results of these exposures could include irritation, dryness, and rashes.
Special considerations for newborn skin
Babies are born with a coating that protected them in the wet environment of the womb called the vernix. It is a wax like coating that protects baby’s skin and even moisturizes it. The layer sloughs off on its own after about a week and there is no value in making the process go faster with bathing.
In fact, full immersion bathing is contraindicated for newborns. For one thing, even a warm bath would be a shock to their very young systems but there is also the matter of the umbilicus. Until the umbilical cord stump falls off—usually, within about two weeks—sponge baths are the most you want to give your baby. It’s essential to keep the stump area dry, to prevent infection, until it’s fully healed. That doesn’t mean that baby shouldn’t be cleaned up, but you can keep baby warm, wrapped up in a blanket, while only washing the essentials: face, diaper area, and hands.
One month old
At around a month old, some babies develop what’s termed ‘baby acne’. It’s thought to be caused by lingering hormones from the mother that are leaving baby’s system. The fact that baby is suddenly being exposed to all sorts of new elements is another factor in early rashes, including diaper rash. If your baby does get acne, don’t worry about it. It will clear up on its own in no time.
Another one month old plus skin issue can be cradle cap. This is where you start to notice that your baby has a scaly build up on their scalp, which can extend to eyebrows, lids, or behind their ears. The cause is an overproduction of oil. You can gently brush away the scales but this is one of those conditions that baby will simply outgrow. If you’re really concerned about it, see your doctor.
How much bathing is too much?
When you do transition baby to immersion bathing, be careful not to bath baby too often. 3 – 4 times a week, up to their first birthday is enough. The key to protecting their skin isn’t adding more to it, like lotions, but rather to avoid stripping away the natural protective oils that their bodies produce.
In addition to avoiding over-washing, you should be careful of what fragrances and chemicals baby’s skin comes into contact with. A fragrance free lotion after a warm bath is fine, but avoid scented baby wipes and laundry detergent. While you don’t need to separate baby’s laundry from the rest of the family, skip the scented soaps and dryer sheets.
Eczema and diaper rash
The two most common infant skin conditions—which can appear within the first months— are eczema and diaper rash.
Eczema is a red, itchy, sometimes weepy rash that appears most often on the face, on the chest, at the elbows and behind the knees. The rash eventually gets scaly and dry. It can be triggered by many things and does tend to run in families that already deal with asthma, allergies or the like.
Diaper rash is caused when the skin is irritated by exposure to wetness, such as from a soiled diaper or from not being dried properly after a bath, before diapering again. It can even happen if the diaper is on too tightly or because of fragrance in baby wipes or the diapers themselves. There’s no need to describe where this one occurs! Here’s how to deal with them:
- Reduce bathing or alternate immersion baths and sponge baths.
- Figure out, if you can, what might be triggering an outbreak.
- Wash baby with fragrance free soaps and a lot of water.
- Limit ointment use to the affected areas.
- Keep baby in loose fitting, breathable cotton clothes.
- Change diapers as soon as they are soiled—but don’t beat yourself up if baby’s been in the diaper for a wee bit! Even the most diligently changed baby can end up with diaper rash.
- Wash the affected area with warm water. Baby wipes can further the irritation, so don’t use those.
- Let the area air dry for as long as possible; the air will help heal the skin.
- Dry with a clean, soft cloth, using a soft patting motion, rather than rubbing.
- Apply a layer of ointment like XXX
- Skip the talcum powder or cornstarch; baby really doesn’t need them and they can be inhaled, doing more harm than good. There have also been links between talcum powder and cancer, so it’s best avoided!
A diaper rash shouldn’t last more than a few days. See your doctor if it lasts longer and be sure to ask your postpartum doula to take a look too.
If you live where it’s hot, your child can get prickly heat. Babies don’t sweat, like adults do, and the result of overheating can be pinprick bumps on parts of the body that are most prone to heat build up: arm pits, groin, neck and any folds of the skin. A baby can even develop prickly heat in the winter, if you bundle them up too much against the cold!
Speaking of heat, it’s best to keep baby out of direct sunlight until they are six months of age. They are easily burned by the sun and sunscreens—even the ones designed for children—can be too harsh and full of fragrance. Zinc oxide on noses and ears is a good idea, as you can’t always keep these parts out of the sun.
If your infant has been subjected to a round of antibiotics, they may develop a yeast infection, which appears either as thrush, which looks like dried milk in baby’s mouth and on the tongue, or a yeast based diaper rash. Talk to your doctor about anti-yeast treatments, if this occurs.
Whatever you do, if you have any questions about caring for your newborn or infant’s skin, don’t hesitate to ask your postpartum doula. Their long experience with babies will come in handy!