It may look like dandruff, but the white/ yellow flakes or the thick layer of joined together scaly patches that can develop on a baby's scalp is actually called cradle cap. It is very common in babies, and sometimes develops in older children. Cradle cap is not serious and is very easy to treat. Cradle cap will almost always start to clear up within a few days of starting treatment.
It looks much worse than it is. Cradle cap can look like dried splattered yoghurt and there may be red spots around the edges of the cap. There is no bleeding or irritation, and the baby has no fever or any other signs of illness. If it is not treated it may begin to weep fluid and, rarely, spread to the face and neck.
What causes it?
Nobody knows the exact cause of cradle cap. It is one of a range of conditions where the skin produces too much natural sebum - the slightly oily substance that stops the skin from drying out.
What should I do?
- Don't panic - cradle cap is very easy to treat and almost always begins to clear up within a couple of days.
- Massage the baby's head with baby oil or olive oil before bedtime, and wash off the oil with a gentle baby shampoo in the morning. Don't be afraid to touch the soft spot in the baby's scalp (fontanelle).
- Finally, gently rub the baby's head with a towel and brush it using a soft hair brush or baby comb. The scales should come off easily. Even if the baby doesn't have hair this will help. (Sometimes the baby will lose their hair but don't worry, it will grow back).
- Repeat this cycle once a day - bath-time is perfect - until the problem clears up.
What do I do if the problem hasn't cleared up?
If after a couple of weeks the oil massage and shampoo treatment has not worked, your chemist will be able to recommend a shampoo containing active ingredients, for example sulphur and salicylic acid, which should clear the cradle cap up, or speak to your health visitor for advice. If cradle cap spreads to the face and neck it is known as seborrhoeic dermatitis. This rarely happens, but if it does, contact your GP.
Finally, remember that cradle cap is not a serious problem; you can easily treat it at home with the above advice and it will almost certainly clear up quickly.