How to Stop your Baby Scratching their Eczema
If you’re a parent of a baby with eczema, there’s probably little you want more than to find a way to stop them scratching.
A natural response to pruritis (or itchy skin), scratching can inflame and break the skin, causing soreness and infection. It can also lead to more itching!
As adults, we know that trying not to scratch is hard. For babies, scratching is simply irresistible.
So, what can we do? Your desire to protect your precious little one from damaging scratching is just as natural as their urge to scratch. Unfortunately, the truth is that if your baby is itchy, you probably can’t prevent them from scratching altogether. But there’s so much you can do to soothe the symptoms of baby eczema.
Read on to learn all about infantile eczema and what you can do about your baby’s busy fingers.
What is baby eczema?
Eczema is an umbrella term, describing a group of conditions where the skin becomes bumpy, itchy and dry. The eczema rash is usually red or pink in babies with lighter pigmented skin. It can be red-brown, purple or sometimes grey in those with darker pigmented skin.
When these conditions affect children before they’re toddling, it’s known as baby eczema (also known as infantile eczema and baby dermatitis). Researchers estimate that 1 in 5 children in the UK have eczema1. The two types that occur most often in babies are:
- Atopic dermatitis – a chronic (long-lasting) condition, more likely to develop in babies with a family history of eczema, asthma and allergies.
- Contact dermatitis – occurs when the skin is exposed to an irritating substance. This could be any number of things, from laundry detergent to moisture. Note that something that irritates one baby’s skin might have no effect on another’s.
Baby eczema over time
Even in our tiny ones, eczema changes over time. In infants (newborn to 12 months), patches of dry, flaky and rashy skin usually begin on those chubby cheeks, on the forehead and scalp and behind the ears. Parents often notice these symptoms developing at 1, 2 or 3 months old. Between 6 and 12 months, you might observe the elbows, knees, tummy and chest becoming rashy. Around age 2, eczema commonly appears in ‘creasy’ areas, such as the inner elbow and neck. Affected areas might begin to look thicker and darker with lines called ‘lichenification’.
Experience of eczema ranges from mild to severe, affecting each baby differently over time. As your baby develops, so do their motor skills – meaning they’re more likely to use their fingernails to target that itch as they grow.
Baby eczema vs dry skin
While dry skin is a symptom of the condition, your baby having dry skin doesn’t necessarily mean they have eczema. If the dryness is accompanied by a bumpy texture, change in colour, fluid (known as ‘weeping’ or ‘oozing’) and your child is trying to scratch with their hands or by rubbing against other surfaces, it’s likely eczema.*
Baby eczema vs baby acne
As common infant skin issues that can be similar in appearance, people sometimes confuse these two conditions. Baby acne usually develops before the baby is 6 weeks, appears as red or white pimples and clears up without treatment within months. It is also more likely than eczema to occur on baby’s back in the first 6 months of life.
On the other hand, baby eczema is more likely to appear bumpy and weepy, and to occur and persist later into development. *
*Always check with your doctor if you are unsure about what’s affecting your baby’s skin.
Why do babies get eczema?
While the actual cause of eczema is unknown, we do know that genes and triggers in the environment both play a role.
Eczema ‘runs in families’ (along with asthma and hay fever – together known as the atopic triad2), which points to a genetic component. Research has identified a number of genes linked to these conditions and continues to explore the part genetics plays in eczema.
Triggers can be anything outside the body that activates your baby’s immune system, causing their skin cells to behave differently than usual. These can include:
- Irritants, like soap and dust mites
- Certain foods, such as milk, egg and peanut
In addition, infant skin differs in structure and composition to adult skin. For example, the skin barrier is 30% thinner in babies less than 12 months old3. This makes baby skin more prone to dryness and less effective in protecting against irritants than adult skin.
Why do babies scratch?
Your little one scratches for the same reason you might – an impulsive urge to ‘quench’ an itch. Scratching sends mild pain signals along the nerves, distracting the brain. The process also releases serotonin, a feel-good chemical in the brain’s pleasure centres. Momentarily, scratching brings baby relief.
However, serotonin also resets the itch, again triggering the urge to scratch. And so, the cycle continues.
The problem with scratching
The more your baby rubs or scratches, the more intense their itchiness becomes. Cue even more scratching, which breaks the skin and disrupts its normal function, leading to inflammation. Cracking, pain and bleeding can follow, and ultimately infection. These are classed as severe symptoms of baby eczema.
How can I relieve my itchy baby’s eczema?
While you know that they’re simply desperate for relief, you also know scratching can exacerbate the rash and risks introducing infection. Distressed parents often feel they carry the responsibility for stopping their baby from scratching.
Imagine you could stay awake 24/7. Even then you couldn’t possibly keep your eyes on your baby 100% of the time. Even supermums and superdads need to eat and go to the bathroom!
So, you can’t stop your baby from scratching. However, you can help prevent and soothe itching, reducing that urge to scratch before it has a chance to set in. Alternatively, when your baby is already in need of relief, you can help support them to ‘safely scratch’. Using these strategies together is a good way to handle baby eczema.
Avoiding flare ups
Preventing a flare up in the first place is, of course, the ideal way to avoid itching and scratching. However, learning your baby’s triggers is a journey, and lots of the time eczema simply doesn’t behave how we expect it to.
Keeping a ‘flare up’ diary can help you identify what causes your little one’s symptoms to appear, worsen and improve. Each day, you jot down what they ate (or what you ate if you’re breastfeeding), what products and clothes have come in contact with their skin and what symptoms they have. Some parents find this more helpful than others - it might be that you simply learn the factors that cause your baby to react through trial and error.
Preventing contact dermatitis flare ups
There are some common triggers for contact dermatitis you could routinely look out for and avoid to help prevent your baby’s skin flaring up. These include:
Allergens. Pet dander, pollen or dust can cause sensitive skin to react. Air filters and vacuum cleaners with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters reduce these in your home. Hot washing sheets weekly can also help tackle dust mites.
Moisture. Babies are notoriously sticky! Milk, saliva and sweat on the skin bring some babies out in that itchy rash. Use (and frequently change) dribble bibs, gently pat dry moisture when you see it and dress your baby in loose, light clothing to aid wicking.
Scratchy fabrics. Certain fibres in clothes, soft furnishings and stuffed toys can irritate skin and trigger eczema. Try to keep wool, polyester and other scratchy fabrics away from your little one.
Detergents and soaps. Try non-bio detergents for your baby’s clothes and sheets and minimal amounts of a mild product to wash your little one (speak to your doctor about recommended soaps and cleansing products for your sensitive-skinned child).
Preventing the need to scratch
We’re often asked how to stop eczema itching in babies – perhaps a more productive question than how to stop scratching. However, we’d reframe it a little further because – with the best will in the world – parents can’t always stop an itch from striking in the first place.
At Cosi Care, we think of it as calming the itch. Here are some strategies:
- Listen out. Research suggests your baby uses different sounding cries to communicate different needs4. It can be hard to tell when infants are experiencing itchiness – listening for a specific cry could help.
- Cool down. Cold and itch signals run along the same nerves, so cold may stop the itch signal ‘getting through’ – it’s a proven soother. The Cosi Care Scratch Star and Scratch Attack Roller are both designed to be stored in the fridge, ready with a cooling sensation for instant relief. Moisturisers can be kept in the fridge, too.
- Change it up. Try introducing a different sensation when your baby’s itch gets too much. Some find gently tapping an itchy area calms the urge to scratch. Massage is also beneficial – use Cosi Care products to gently stimulate itchy areas (or unaffected skin, to distract the brain).
- Add water. ‘Wet wrap therapy’ can be soothing. This involves wrapping moistened cloth around the affected skin and covering with a dry layer. Additionally, a lukewarm bath sometimes eases discomfort – remember to avoid anything but mild soap and follow with a suitable moisturiser.
- Distract, distract, distract! Partly why a bath is so effective – especially when bath toys are involved! Babies are wired to be inquisitive so giving their little brains something other than the itch to focus on can really help. Our products are made for small hands and double as toys with your support.
The itch has set in. Your little one has started to rub or scratch. You’ve tried everything else but you just know: they need to scratch.
Experts recommend keeping your baby’s little nails clean and short. While this can help, it doesn’t totally protect against damage. If you’ve tried eczema mittens or other hand-covering, you’ll know this isn’t fool-proof either, and can be distressing for both you and baby. When the urge to scratch is strong, even young infants will find something to rub against.
At Cosi Care we recognize that itchy babies simply need instant relief. Long-term strategies are great, but they don’t cut it when your precious one is struggling now. We invented Safe Scratching to instantly soothe your baby’s itch with cold and texture that don’t break the skin. Here’s how to do it:
Safe scratching with the Scratch Star
- Remove your Scratch Star from the fridge
- Pop a blob of moisturiser suitable for your baby’s skin on the centre of the metal plate then massage over your little one’s itchy area in slow, gentle circular motions.
- Clean and repeat!
Safe scratching with the Scratch Attack Roller
- Remove your Scratch Attack Roller ball from the fridge.
- Blob a little trusted moisturiser directly on your baby’s itchy area OR pop it inside the product for use as a cooling applicator. Massage slowly over the affected area in gentle, repetitive
- Clean and repeat!
If an itchy area is already sore or infected, or you’re concerned about massaging particular parts of your sore little one’s skin (people often ask us how to stop baby scratching their face, for example) you can try redirecting. To do this, use your Cosi Care safe scratching product to massage a different area of their body. Introducing sensation and stimulating the nerves of another patch of skin can change focus in the brain and ease the itch.
Looking to the future
Being an ‘eczema parent’ can be challenging, heartbreaking and everything in between. There’s no wonder “how to get rid of baby eczema fast” pops up in search terms related to this condition so often.
Some babies do outgrow eczema by around age 4. For many more with atopic dermatitis, the condition will come and go over the course of their life. Either way, it does get easier. You’ll find what works best for your family and are likely to meet lots of others you can share the trials and triumphs of living with eczema along the way.
We’re here to help you and your little one find relief while on that journey.
Pick up your safe scratchers right here.
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