It breaks a parent’s heart to see their infant’s skin go from smooth and petal-soft, to developing patches of reddish or whitish dry, rough, itchy skin. And the constant itching is an affliction to both baby and parent. Yet, eczema, also called atopic dermatitis or simply dermatitis, is relatively common among babies. Ten to fifteen percent of all infants will develop this chronic autoimmune condition; some babies are as young as one or two months when symptoms start, but more often, the condition will develop in the first six months of life. Sixty-five percent of babies who will develop eczema show their first symptoms by the time they turn one year of age. Ninety percent of all children who will have eczema show symptoms within the first five years of life.
The propensity for eczema can be inherited from a close relative, or it can be indicative of allergies to certain foods, pet dander or potentially irritating substances like soaps and fragrances.
While eczema can erupt on any part of a baby’s skin, it is most likely to develop in areas that come into contact with higher-than-normal levels of bacteria. For example, a baby may develop eczema patches on the cheeks or the chin, from drooling while eating or while sleeping. An infant may develop eczema on the back of his or her head, from riding on a car seat pad that hasn’t been cleaned in a while. A baby who has begun crawling may develop eczema patches on his or her knees and near the wrists.
You have gone to your child’s pediatrician, and your baby has been diagnosed with eczema. What now?
There are dozens of products on the market for sterilizing and soothing irritated areas of the skin, for moisturizing the whole body, and for bathing baby and laundering baby’s clothes and bedding so as to decrease the possibility of skin irritation.
More about that in a bit. But as for treating the itching, which leads to scratching and to irritated skin, you could resort to using prescription or over-the-counter hydrocortisone topical treatments — steroid ointments and creams, which relieve the itch. But as a loving and concerned parent, these should be viewed as a last choice and should only be used when symptoms are severe (and when more natural means have proven ineffective).
The way that corticosteroids work is by mimicking the effects of certain hormones that the body produces naturally. When corticosteroids are applied topically, they suppress inflammation, which is what causes the itching. While these are considered safe for use on children, you don’t want to use them too often or for prolonged periods. The long-term possible risks continue being investigated; but one known side effect of prolonged topical steroid use is thinning of the skin, which you would not want to happen to your baby, and which would only increase the absorption of chemicals into the baby’s whole system.
Natural Ways to Prevent Your Baby’s Eczema
Fortunately, there are many natural and safe approaches you can take to both prevent, and relieve, symptoms of eczema.
One important step is to buy gentle, fragrance-free and dye-free laundry detergents, which are less likely to irritate sensitive skin. Avoid using scented fabric softeners or dryer sheets.
For baby’s bath, your little one should be washed with mild, creamy soaps or soap-free body wash. Bathe baby daily, to remove excess bacteria from the skin. Baths should be with lukewarm water, and no more than 10 minutes long. Because your baby’s skin is sensitive, you don’t need to lather all of it every day. Instead, soap up the diaper area, ears, between the toes, and rinse off the rest of their body with just water. Also, be careful to clean skin folds on the neck, thighs, etc.
Moisturizing the skin is key to preventing itchy flare-ups. So, once you bathe your infant, don’t completely towel-dry their skin. Pat-dry, leaving it damp, then immediately apply an ointment like petroleum jelly or a thick cream to the entire body. Because your baby’s skin may have difficulty retaining moisture, it is best to apply moisturizer to the skin several times a day, being sure to thoroughly moisturize skin areas that have dry patches. You should continue moisturizing affected areas, even after skin clears.
Cocoa butter is a great, natural moisturizer and antioxidant for the skin; products with cocoa butter can be found at stores or online. The fewer ingredients, the better. Pure, all-natural cocoa butter is also sold online.
Relieving the Itch Naturally
While hydrocortisone can be used to relieve itching, many parents report that all-natural substances, like aloe vera gel and shea butter, also work well for itching. If you use aloe vera gel, buy alcohol-free, and preferably, 100% pure gel, which can be found online. Or you can certainly buy an aloe vera plant and keep it around to break off snippets of leaves as needed! Shea butter can be found as an ingredient in some skin care products, or it can be purchased in its pure form online (whipped shea butter is much easier to apply than the hard paste). Both aloe and shea butter are considered excellent natural moisturizers for the skin, in addition to being itch relievers.
Some people find great results with herbs. Chamomile and curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, both have anti-inflammatory properties and other healthful benefits. You can buy skin care products with chamomile or turmeric online. Or for cheaper solutions, you can use chamomile tea compresses on itchy skin (apply cool or warm tea with cotton ball or clean wash cloth), or you can mix turmeric powder with water and apply to affected skin. Always put on moisturizer after applications.
Dress baby in loose-fitting, soft cotton clothes, which will let skin breathe and are less likely to irritate it.
Adding Oatmeal, Baking Soda or Bleach to Baby’s Bath
Different substances will work for different people. Another remedy that health professionals recommend for treating baby’s eczema is to add colloidal oatmeal, baking soda or bleach to the baby’s bath water. Colloidal oatmeal is simply finely-ground oatmeal (but not the instant kind); oatmeal soothes, moisturizes and relieves itchy skin. Baking soda is another safe, natural product that relieves itch and helps to gently sanitize baby’s skin; try mixing 2 tbsp into baby’s bath water. Another alternative, which, while not natural, is handy and can prove effective, is to mix 1 tbsp bleach per gallon of baby’s bath water. Sounds a little harsh, but it’s no different from going into a swimming pool. Bleach will kill off excess bacteria on baby’s skin, reducing the number of eczema flare-ups. You should rinse off baby with plain water after bathing in water with bleach.
Keeping Allergens to a Minimum
In addition to the tips above, you will want to see if your baby is allergic to a particular food or foods. You do this by eliminating one food from his or her diet (or from your diet, if you’re a nursing mom) for two weeks, to see if your baby may have food allergies that are contributing to or causing the eczema. Once a food is determined not to be at fault, re-introduce it to the diet and eliminate another food. Get your pediatrician’s approval before eliminating any food, and ask about nutritional substitutes for each food you eliminate.
Many babies with eczema are incorrectly diagnosed as being allergic to their mom’s milk or to cow’s milk. Before you stop breastfeeding or giving cow’s milk to your baby, talk to your pediatrician (or even get a second opinion) — milk is too nutritious a food to omit from your baby’s diet, if other things are causing the allergic reaction. Also, if mom or baby are experiencing a sensitivity to cow’s milk, switching to organic cow’s milk may solve the problem.
Another thing that’s important is to wait until your baby is at least 6 months old before introducing solid foods, as feeding solids to babies younger than 6 months is now known to cause allergies.
You will also want to keep your child’s environment as free from dust and pet dander as possible: vacuum or sweep baby’s room often; frequently mop or vacuum floors or rugs where baby is allowed to crawl; change baby’s bedding every 2-3 days; keep pets out of baby’s room, if they have been found to trigger itching.
Eczema can continue well into childhood or adolescence but resolves itself in most cases by the time a person reaches adulthood. Also, a person with eczema will tend to have an ebb and flow with the illness; there can be periods of near normalcy or remission, in between flare-ups. The best course of action is to always keep skin clean and moisturized, and to eat healthy foods including plenty of fruits, vegetables, and proper hydration.
By Lisa Pecos