Baby birthmarks

When you meet your newborn baby for the first time, it’s hard to take your eyes off him or her. But after you’ve counted all 10 fingers and all 10 toes, you may notice marks on your little one’s face, head or body.

Newborn babies sometimes pick up some bruises or swelling during birth, but these soon go away. Any marks that remain or develop soon after birth could be what’s known as birthmarks.

Although not all birthmarks are permanent and, in fact, many fade or disappear altogether in time. Some birthmarks won’t go away without treatment, and in certain cases birthmarks may require medical attention.

Read on to learn about some of the birthmarks your baby might be born with or develop during childhood.

What Are Birthmarks?

Just as each baby is unique, so is each birthmark. As the name suggests, birthmarks are marks that may be present on your baby’s skin at birth or soon after.

Birthmarks can look very different from one another: Some birthmarks are flat, others are raised; some have a regular shape, others have irregular edges. Birthmarks can come in also many different colours, from coffee-coloured to blue, red, pink or purple.

Most birthmarks are harmless and some will shrink or completely fade as your baby gets older. Rarely, birthmarks can be an indication of an underlying health issue. If you’re ever concerned about a birthmark on your baby, talk to your doctor or your baby’s paediatrician.

What Causes Birthmarks?

The cause of most birthmarks is not really known. They aren’t usually inherited, although in many cases genetic factors are thought to play a part.

There’s nothing you can do to prevent birthmarks from appearing on your baby’s skin, and they aren’t related to any skin trauma during childbirth.

Types of Birthmarks

There are many different types of birthmarks in newborns, and most of these can be grouped into two main categories: pigmented birthmarks and vascular birthmarks.

Pigmented Birthmarks

Pigmented birthmarks look brown, tan or grey in colour. They form where there is a higher concentration of the cells that produce skin colour. Below we describe some of the common types of pigmented birthmarks.

Café-au-Lait Spots

Named after the French term for coffee with milk, these are – unsurprisingly – coffee-coloured or brown patches of skin.

These kinds of birthmark are typically present on your baby’s skin at birth; but they can also develop in the first few years.

One or two café-au-lait spots are usually nothing to worry about, but if more than 6 have appeared by the time your child is 5 years old, this could be a sign of neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that causes abnormal nerve cell growth.

Ask your doctor check the birthmarks if you’re concerned.

Dermal Melanocytosis (Mongolian Spots)

Commonly known as Mongolian spots, these birthmarks can come in various sizes, and usually – but not always – appear on the lower back or bottom. They’re flat, and can be a blueish grey in colour, sometimes looking a bit like a bruise.

Mongolian spots are more common in darker skinned babies.

This type of birthmark can last for a few months or years, but they usually fade away by about 4 years of age. If your baby has one of these, it will usually be gone by the time he or she reaches school age.

Congenital Melanocytic Naevi (Congenital Moles)

The medical name for these can be a bit of a mouthful, but these birthmarks are more commonly referred to as moles. People can develop moles at any time in their life, but some babies are born with them. In this case, they’re referred to as congenital moles.

Congenital moles can range in colour from tan to black, and their size can vary from smaller than the size of a 5p coin to over 20 centimetres across.

Although congenital naevi birthmarks are fairly common, they usually cover a proportionately smaller area of skin as your child grows, making them less noticeable with time. Later in life, during puberty, they may darken or become bumpy or hairy.

Although naevi are mostly harmless, like all other types of mole there is a small chance of them developing into skin cancer much later in your child’s life.

It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your child’s congenital moles, as well as any other moles that develop later on. Get them checked out by a doctor if you have any concerns, especially if you notice any change in a mole’s appearance.

Vascular (blood vessel) Birthmarks

Vascular birthmarks are caused by irregular growth in blood vessels. They can be raised for flat, and they’re often found on the head or neck, but just like pigmented birthmarks they can also appear on other parts of the body.

The colour of vascular birthmarks can depend on which types of blood vessels are affected. For example, if the blood vessels causing the birthmark are close to the surface of the skin, the birthmark might look pink, red or purple. If deeper blood vessels are involved, the birthmark could be more of a bluish colour.

These are some common types of vascular birthmark:

Infantile Haemangiomas (Strawberry Birthmarks)

Commonly called strawberry birthmarks, haemangiomas are raised patches of skin that are usually red, although sometimes – if they’re formed deeper in the skin – they could look blue.

They happen when small blood vessels clump under the skin. This is what sometimes gives them the strawberry-like texture that gives them their name.

This birthmark can show up anywhere, but it usually appears on your baby’s head or neck. At your baby’s birth, these marks may go unnoticed at first. In the first weeks, they might appear pale or even white before turning red.

Haemangiomas are quite common, occurring in about 10 percent of babies. They’re more likely to appear on girls, premature babies, babies with a low birth weight and twins or other multiples.

Strawberry birthmarks often get bigger during the first six months after birth. After this, the birthmark will usually shrink and eventually disappear. In most cases it will be gone by the time your child is 7 years old.

If your baby has a haemangioma and you’re worried about it, have it checked out by your doctor. These kinds of birthmarks don’t generally require treatment, although some may need attention if they get bigger very quickly or cause problems with feeding or vision.

This kind of birthmark does usually need a little extra care though. Here are a few things you can do to look after a haemangioma until it clears up:

  • If your little one scratches the haemangioma it may bleed, so keeping your baby’s nails short and smooth is important. If it bleeds, press down on it with a clean tissue or cloth for at least five minutes. If the bleeding doesn’t stop, call a doctor or visit your local accident and emergency centre.

  • The skin on and around the strawberry birthmark may be delicate and prone to dryness, so it’s best not to use bubble baths and carefully rinse away and shampoo or soap before drying your baby.

  • Gently applying a little petroleum jelly to the skin of the birthmark twice a day can help prevent dryness.

  • Keep the birthmark (and the rest of your baby's skin) protected from the sun by applying a high-factor sunblock that’s safe for babies to use – check the label or ask your pharmacist – and using a sunhat and/or parasol while out walking or in the pushchair. Experts advise keeping babies under 6 months of age out of strong sunlight altogether.

  • If the strawberry birthmark gets sore or infected, show it to your doctor immediately.

Naevus Simplex (Salmon Patches)

Often known as salmon patches, stork marks or angel kisses, these birthmarks appear as red or pink patches on your baby’s neck, forehead or upper eyelids at birth.

They’re very common – around half of all babies get them. They usually fade within a few months, although salmon patches on the forehead or back of the neck may last up to four years or longer.

Port Wine Stains

These birthmarks are large, flat, irregular-shaped dark red or purple areas on your baby’s skin. They can appear anywhere on the body, but they’re most commonly found on the head and neck.

Port wine stains are caused by the irregular growth of the blood vessels under that specific area of skin. This type of birthmark does not usually fade, but it may darken over time. A port wine stain won’t disappear without some type of treatment.

Some parents consider pulsed dye laser treatment for their children in order to lessen the chance of the port wine stain darkening in adolescence and adult life. You may want to talk to your doctor or health visitor to find out more about your treatment options.

Port wine stains don’t usually need any special day-to-day treatment apart from taking extra care to protect against exposure from the sun.

Use a high-factor sun cream suitable for babies – check the label or ask a pharmacist – on exposed skin, give your little one a sunhat and use a sunshade and parasol on your pushchair or pram. It’s best to avoid exposing your baby to strong sunlight altogether if he or she is younger than 6 months old.

If the port wine stain is located near the eyes or forehead, or on the scalp, there may be a slight risk of glaucoma or Sturge-Weber syndrome, a very rare neurological disorder that can cause seizures.

A large port wine stain on an arm or leg could also be a sign of a rare growth disorder in the affected limb.

Your baby’s doctor will be able to explain what treatment options are available in these rare cases. Keep in mind, these underlying conditions are very uncommon, but it’s important to check in with your doctor so that they can be ruled out or the appropriate treatment given.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • There are many different types of birthmark, and most are completely benign. Certain types of birthmark, such as congenital moles, may carry a slight risk of developing into skin cancer later in life.

  • Experts still do not fully understand the reasons for the appearance of all birthmarks, but in most cases they are caused either by a cluster of pigment cells (pigmented birthmarks) or the irregular growth of blood vessels under the skin (vascular birthmarks).

  • The causes of birthmarks are not completely understood, and there are many different kinds – most are harmless, although some need to be checked out more carefully. Birthmarks aren’t thought to be inherited, but some experts believe that changes to genes may play a part in many cases.

  • Mongolian spots are a type of pigmented birthmark, which means that they are caused by abnormal clusters of pigment cells in the skin. They are present from birth and because of their grey-blue colour they might be mistaken for bruises caused during birth, but in fact this is not the case.

Although your doctor may recommend the monitoring or treatment of some types of birthmarks, most are completely harmless. Many types of birthmarks will fade or disappear completely by themselves within a few months or years.

If you’re ever worried about a certain birthmark — its size or shape, or its unusual appearance — turn to your doctor or health visitor for advice.

Above all, keep in mind that just like freckles, hair colour and the shape of your baby’s nose, birthmarks are just another way in which your little one is unique.

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.