Cradle Cap – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Are you noticing scales or flakes of skin on your baby’s scalp (or elsewhere on your little one’s body)? This may be infantile seborrheic dermatitis, better known as cradle cap. It’s basically dandruff for babies. It’s quite common in babies – according to research, about 4 out of 10 infants will get cradle cap in their first 3 months.

Although it can look a little unpleasant, it’s a harmless condition that doesn’t usually cause your baby any discomfort and usually goes away by itself within a few months. Until then, there are some things you can try to help soothe your baby’s skin until it clears. Read on to find out what is the cause of cradle cap, how long it generally lasts, and how to treat it.

What Is Cradle Cap?

Cradle cap is the common name for the greasy, yellow scaly patches that appear on the scalp of some young babies. The medical name for this skin condition is infantile seborrheic dermatitis.

If your baby does get cradle cap, the symptoms will probably start to appear sometime within the first month or second month after being born.

Although cradle cap is most often found on the scalp, it can sometimes appear on other parts of your baby’s body as well, especially the face, eyebrows, ears, neck, armpits, nappy area and behind the knees.

The scales may appear in small patches, but sometimes they can cover the whole of the scalp.

As scales flake off, the surrounding skin may look red. If your baby has hair, some of it might come away with the flakes. This hair loss is only temporary though – those locks will grow back eventually.

The good news is cradle cap isn’t infectious, and it generally isn’t painful or itchy for your baby.

If your baby does seem bothered by itching or pain, or doesn’t seem their usual self, see your doctor for a diagnosis. There may be a chance that this discomfort is caused by a different skin condition like eczema that needs to be ruled out or treated if necessary.

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What Does Cradle Cap Look Like?

As mentioned above, cradle cap usually occurs on the scalp, but may also be found on other parts of the face and body. It might look like dandruff, flaky, or yellowish, often crusty patches on your baby’s scalp. Underneath the scales, the skin may appear reddish or have patches that are either lighter or darker than the surrounding skin, depending on your baby's skin tone.

How Long Does Cradle Cap Last?

It’s common for babies to develop cradle cap within the first few months after birth, and in general, it usually clears up on its own within 6 to 12 months.

What Causes Cradle Cap?

It’s not known exactly what causes cradle cap, but experts say it’s not caused by poor hygiene or an allergy to something you’re using.

Cradle cap isn’t infectious either, so your baby can’t catch it from another child or family member.

The main culprit is believed to be the sebaceous glands in your baby’s skin, which sometimes produce more skin-protecting oil (known as sebum) than usual in the first few weeks after birth.

It’s also thought that malassezia, a yeast that can be present on your baby’s skin, may trigger a reaction that contributes to the development of cradle cap.

Cradle Cap Treatment

It’s common for parents to wonder how to treat cradle cap. Cradle cap usually clears up on its own within a few weeks or months, without the need for any specialised medical treatment.

Still, the following treatments for cradle cap can help slow or prevent the build-up of scales on your baby’s scalp:

  • Wash your baby’s hair gently and frequently with a mild baby shampoo while bathing your baby

  • After washing your baby’s hair, brush the scalp and any hair with a soft brush to loosen the flakes, which can then be rinsed away

  • Resist the temptation to pick the scales off, as this could cause an infection

  • If the scales don’t loosen, consider massaging white petroleum jelly or vegetable oil onto your baby’s scalp to help soften the scales. Leave the ointment on to soak overnight and then wash it off with a baby shampoo in the morning. (Don’t use peanut oil or olive oil for this, as it might cause an allergic reaction.)

How to Get Rid of Cradle Cap

If normal baby shampoo doesn’t seem to work, ask your pharmacist, health visitor or doctor to recommend an emollient, soap substitute or a shampoo specifically designed for cradle cap.


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How to Prevent Cradle Cap

While it’s true that there’s no surefire way to prevent cradle cap, there are a few things you can do that might help keep those pesky flakes at bay. As we mentioned above, you can help cradle cap by regularly shampooing your baby’s hair and gently brushing away the flakes.

Always be gentle with your baby’s skin and avoid picking at the scales. Use gentle, fragrance-free cleansers to avoid irritation or infection.

When to Call Your Doctor

Treating your baby’s cradle cap is usually something you can do yourself at home, but it’s advisable to consult with your doctor if the cradle cap covers your little one’s body or doesn’t seem to get any better after a few weeks of treatment.

Also, see a doctor if the crusts are bleeding or leaking fluid, or if there’s any swelling.


According to the experts, the best approach to dealing with cradle cap is to wash your baby’s hair regularly and gently with baby shampoo and gently loosen the flakes with a soft brush. If the cradle cap is severe or spreading, a pharmacist can suggest a suitable emollient to use.

The Bottom Line

Cradle cap can look a little worrying at first, but it’s usually harmless and will clear up in time. Following your doctor’s advice, the tips above, as well as some general baby skin care tips can help you ensure that your baby’s skin is protected and healthy.

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.

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