Cradle cap is a common, if unsightly, condition affecting babies, usually in the first few months of life. It appears as flaky yellow or brownish patches of skin on the head or around the eyebrows with scales that may appear cracked, greasy, or even weeping. It may spread to the forehead, eyelids, ears, and nose, as well as down the back of the neck. Rarely, it may also show up on other parts of the body where skin folds onto itself, such as the base of the neck, the folds of the groin and diaper area, under the arms, inside the elbows, and behind the knees.
Cradle cap is a form of dermatitis (a general term for inflammation of the skin) and is often referred to as baby dandruff. Despite its appearance, it's not painful or harmful to your baby, it's not contagious, and it's not caused by poor hygiene, illness, or allergies. Experts aren't certain what causes cradle cap; however, one theory is that hyperactivity of the sebaceous glands in the skin on the face and scalp (caused by the surge of hormones that crossed the placenta just before birth) pump out a greasy substance that retains water to prevent dryness. When the oily secretion dries, old skin cells remain trapped on the skin. Most cases of cradle cap are very mild and easily treated and usually resolve themselves by 8 to 12 months of age, even without any treatment.
You can help relieve the symptoms of cradle cap by washing your baby's hair every 2 to 3 days with a mild baby shampoo. To soften the flakey skin, try rubbing a small amount of vegetable oil (such as olive oil) on your baby's scalp, leave it on for about 15 minutes, and then use a fine-tooth comb or soft brush to gently brush them off. However, be careful not to brush too harshly; your baby's scalp is delicate and can get sore and red if brushed in the same spot too long or too hard. Make sure you wash your baby's scalp after applying the oil; leaving the oil on can cause the flakes to stick even more. To help dissolve all the oil, leave the shampoo on for a few minutes before rinsing off.
If the cradle cap is persistent, or if your baby is over six months old, you may try washing his or her hair with a seborrhea shampoo, such as those containing selenium, salicylic acid, or tar. If the condition does not improve after a couple of weeks of treatment or if it seems to be developing in other parts of the body, call your pediatrician. He or she may prescribe a mild dandruff shampoo or a cortisone cream to apply to the affected area. Remember, there is no reason to be alarmed, it doesn't hurt your baby and is perfectly normal.