Your Baby

What To Do If Your Newborn’s Skin is Dry, Red or Peeling

It's more common than you might think.
Nicole Arsiwala

Looking after a newborn can be exhilarating, exhausting and also quite stressful, especially if you are a first-time mom and don’t know what to expect.

Of course, you’ve read the books and the internet, and you attended those pre-natal classes, but when anything strays from the normal, you start to panic. One of the common things that often causes new moms to worry is their newborn’s skin peeling.

Here, we will explain why this happens, what you should do and when you should seek help.

Why is my baby’s skin peeling?

A newborn’s skin is extremely fragile and will continue to change its appearance for the first few weeks of life. This might include a small amount of flaking or peeling, which is normal.  Peeling can occur on any part of the body, but the wrists, ankles, and soles of the feet are most common.

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A newborn baby’s skin is covered in vernix, a sticky, white thick coating that protects a baby’s skin in the womb. The vernix should always be left to absorb naturally as it acts as a natural moisturizer and protects against infection in the first few days.

Once the vernix is absorbed, babies will begin to shed the outer layer of their skin within one to three weeks.

NOTE: The amount of peeling varies and often depends on whether your baby was premature, delivered on time or overdue.

The more vernix a baby has on his skin at birth, the less likely his skin may peel. Since premature babies have more vernix, their skin tends to peel less than a baby born at or after 40 weeks. On the other hand, an overdue baby’s skin is more likely to be dry and cracked since the protective vernix has been absorbed in the womb.

How do I treat peeling skin?

Some amount of dryness and peeling after birth is normal as the baby’s skin matures and forms its own protective barrier. However, there are some do’s and don’ts that will help:

  • Reduce bath time: Long baths can remove natural oils from newborn skin. Cut short bath time and see the difference in your baby’s skin.
  • Use lukewarm water: Hot water often dries up the skin more. Use lukewarm water for your baby’s wash/ bath.
  • Avoid soaps and bubble baths: Unless there is a medical condition for the dry, peeling skin (more on that below), it’s best to use plain water for cleaning/bathing baby. Avoid soaps and bubble baths for the first few weeks.
  • Apply a suitable baby oil or moisturizing cream: Olive oil is natural, gentle on baby skin and easy to find, and it works wonders on treating dry, peeling skin. If you’re using a moisturizing cream, go for a hypoallergenic, non-scented mild one meant for babies. The fewer chemicals on a baby’s skin, the better. Give an olive oil massage or apply the cream immediately after a bath as the moist skin will seal the moisture in.
  • Keep your baby hydrated: Babies under six months old shouldn’t drink water, so offer more milk.
  • Protect your newborn from cold air: Extreme cold temperatures and cold air can make your infant’s dry skin condition worse. Make sure you cover their exteriors with socks and mittens.
  • … and dry air: The heaters in your home dry up the air, which aggravates the condition. Use a cool mist humidifier to raise the moisture level in your home.
  • Avoid harsh chemicals and detergents: If your baby has sensitive skin, wash his clothes separately with a milder detergent designed specifically for a baby’s sensitive skin.

Other causes of peeling: When to call the doctor?

If the above points don’t seem to help, or if the dry patches start to spread, crack or seem painful or itchy, consult your pediatrician. There could be a medical condition that’s causing the excessive dry, peeling skin.

1. Eczema or Atopic Dermatitis

In some cases, peeling and dry skin are caused by a skin condition called eczema, or atopic dermatitis. The symptoms include dry, red, itchy patches on your baby’s skin that looks like a rash.

Doctors use the term ‘infant eczema‘ to describe two conditions that usually appear between 2 to 4 months of age:

  • Atopic dermatitis: A typically inherited chronic condition more common among babies with a family history of allergies, eczema, and asthma.
  • Contact dermatitis: A rash when the skin comes into contact with an irritating substance such as a detergent or dust or even a particular food group.

How do I treat eczema?

Once your baby has a flare up, try to treat it as soon as possible. Otherwise, he’ll rub his skin and aggravate it further, making the area extra vulnerable and dry. Follow the same advice as above in the treatment of eczema, and also remember the following points:

  • Keeping your newborn’s skin moisturized is the most important factor. Special moisturizing creams like Aveeno or Cetaphil help treat the condition and soothe the skin.
  • Moisture (from milk, saliva, sweat) is a trigger for eczema. Keep your infant cool and moisture-free in lightweight clothing and thin blankets. Wipe away drool and saliva immediately.
  • Keep your baby’s nails short to prevent him from scratching his skin. You could also cover his hands with mittens to prevent rubbing.
  • Avoid clothes with tags and fabrics that rub up against the skin when dressing your baby.
  • Here’s a lesser-known fact: breast milk is a great medicine for eczema, due to its anti-microbial properties. Simply rub a few drops onto the rash regularly when you’re breastfeeding and see the difference.
  • Dairy, soy and wheat are known to be common triggers for eczema. Switching formulas (if baby is bottle-fed) sometimes helps.
  • If the itching persists, your baby’s doctor might suggest a hydrocortisone cream and/or antihistamines to reduce the itching.

This article by the National Eczema Society is a good resource to find out more about the condition

2. Ichthyosis

Skin peeling and excessive dryness can also be caused by a genetic condition called ichthyosis. This skin condition causes scaly, itchy skin and skin shedding. Your doctor may diagnose your baby with this condition based on your family’s medical history and a physical examination or blood test. Medicated creams can relieve dryness and improve the condition of your baby’s skin.

So, to summarize, in general dry, peeling skin in babies is not a cause for concern – in fact, it is more common than we think. But as with all things baby-related, keep a look out for anything abnormal and seek help if the condition persists.

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