Common skin irritations in newborns (and how to treat them)

One in two babies suffer from minor skin irritations in their first few weeks.
One in two babies suffer from minor skin irritations in their first few weeks.  Photo: Getty Images

Did you know that as many as one in two newborn babies suffer from skin irritations in their first few weeks? Although most of them go away on their own, they can be very alarming for new parents. So what are the most common rashes and irritations to look out for?

According to Dr Lauren Young from the Dermatology Institute of Victoria, the most common rash that appears on newborn skin is erythema toxic neonatorum. "It affects up to 50 per cent of babies, usually in the first week or two of life," she says.

Although it has an intimidating name and can look unpleasant, with small red bumps and pimples spread over the baby's body and limbs, it is actually harmless and will disappear spontaneously without treatment.

Another common skin irritation is miliaria, also known as sweat rash. Babies are particularly susceptible to it because of the immaturity of their sweat ducts. Dr Young says that miliaria can be minimised by ensuring that the baby does not overheat.

Other skin irritations that can occur in newborns include rashes relating to yeast, viral or bacterial infections. Dr Young's advice is to seek urgent medical attention if your baby develops a new rash – as always, it's better to get the check rather than worry.

A skin irritation that can have longer lasting implications is eczema or atopic dermatitis. "This can develop as red scaly areas anywhere on your baby's skin, especially in areas of the body that are prone to overheating, such as the groin," explains Dr Young.

Eczema is caused by a gene mutation, which impacts the body's ability to repair damage to the skin barrier. Most skin cells have two copies of the gene, but people who are susceptible to eczema only have one.

Dr Young notes that this especially occurs around the nappy area. "This is due to multiple strains on this skin, including heat, as well as irritation from urine and faeces," she explains.

Her advice is to wash the skin with plain water after every nappy change. Applying a barrier cream regularly to the area can reduce this likelihood of developing a problem.

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Children who have had eczema have a greater risk of developing food allergies, asthma and hay fever later in childhood.

Some babies develop severe eczema, which can be very difficult for them and their parents. Anna Johnson, a mother of two, says that she was "heartbroken" when her son, Max, was diagnosed with eczema.

"Finding out he had eczema was awful, because my husband has suffered from eczema all his life so almost instantly I played a fast forward movie reel of what lay ahead for Max, and I knew what he was about to face," she explains.

Anna says that as a new parent she felt totally overwhelmed by the new routine that was necessary to treat Max's eczema.

"The most significant thing at the time was having to put him to sleep in wet rompers – which we had to soak in warm water.

"Those early days of wet rompers, latherings of moisturiser and steroid cream all seem like a blur now – we did it almost like clock work. It was the only routine Max had, everything else revolved around that," Anna recalls.

She also notes that learning to deal with Max's eczema meant that she was back to square one. "Everything I had learnt about parenting in those short few months had to be thrown and I had to start again," she says.

Thankfully Max's eczema is now under control. "No one would know that he suffers from eczema now," Anna says.  

"I'm really proud that I helped my son manage something in his life, so early on. It does not hinder his every day life anymore."