About a month ago, I noticed a patch of raised, red bumps by my daughter's bellybutton. Thinking that she had gotten a bug bite or merely had some irritated skin from playing outside all day, I put some skin cream on it and assumed it would go away.

But it didn't go away. It persisted, and only grew more angry and red. Eventually, I was at one of my checkups and my daughter was with me. The doctor gestured to her tummy and asked, "Did you realize your baby has eczema?"

Whoops. No, I did not, doctor. I felt terrible for not realizing that my daughter had eczema. But it was my first experience with the skin condition.

I was left wondering: How exactly do you treat it? Luckily, there are ways you can treat baby eczema at home.

What is eczema?

First of all, what is eczema? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that eczema is called atopic dermatitis. It's a chronic skin condition that can affect up to 10 percent of children in the United States. It’s most common in kids between the ages of 1 and 5.

For infants (children under the age of 1 year), eczema usually affects the:

  • cheeks
  • scalp
  • body
  • extremities

Older children and adults typically have more flare-ups on their hands and feet, though knees and elbows are still quite common. Eczema is very itchy and uncomfortable. The condition interferes with quality of life, including interrupting sleep and daily activities because of the discomfort.

There isn't one exact known cause for eczema. Instead, doctors think that there are several factors that lead to the condition. Theories include everything from a skin mutation to allergens that increase the autoimmune response. It may be caused by certain bacteria triggering a skin reaction.

The causes of eczema can be complex, so treatment usually includes different options, too.

How to treat eczema in babies

According to the AAP, there are four main goals to treating eczema:

  1. Maintenance skin care: This is the most important, as it can help repair and keep a healthy skin barrier, as well as potentially prevent future flare-ups.
  2. Anti-inflammatory skin medications: To help reduce the inflammatory skin response when there is a flare.
  3. Itch control.
  4. Managing triggers.

Keeping those four goals in mind, here are five ways you can treat your baby's eczema at home.

1. Warm bath with moisturizer

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Giving your baby a warm bath is one of the most effective things you can do to treat and manage eczema at home. A daily warm bath is beneficial, as long as you immediately apply moisturizer to the baby's skin after the bath.

You should use lukewarm water in the bath. Stay away from any harsh or perfumed synthetic soap or cleansing agents. Every child is different, so you should pay attention to how your infant’s skin responds to the frequency of baths. For example, some babies may respond better to baths every other day.

It is important to dry your baby immediately after their baths before applying moisturizers, in order to help prevent skin from drying out.

2. Use an ointment

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Your baby may slightly object to the "greasy" feeling of skin ointment, as opposed to lighter moisturizing lotion. But studies have found that skin ointments are actually more effective for treating eczema because they keep more moisture in. Thicker creams are also helpful.

You should choose the most natural formula available, as fragrances and preservatives can be potential irritants for babies with eczema. In general, prescription creams have not been found to be more effective than over-the-counter moisturizers for eczema. You can save your money and choose the moisturizer that works for your budget.

3. Evaluate your environment

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One of the most important things you can do for your baby's eczema is to evaluate potential triggers in your environment. Products in your home could be causing or contributing to your baby's skin flaring up.

Some of the most common triggers are:

  • environmental allergens
  • infections (especially viruses)
  • harsh soaps and detergents
  • fragrances
  • rough or nonbreathable clothing fabrics
  • sweat
  • excess saliva
  • stress

4. Apply a wet dressing

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If your baby’s having a particularly severe eczema flare-up, ask your pediatrician about doing a wet dressing, or wet wrap therapy, to help treat it.

This treatment is used with prescription steroids that are applied to the skin and help to ensure that the medicine is absorbed more fully into the skin.

To perform wet therapy:

  1. give your child a bath
  2. apply moisturizer
  3. apply dampened moist gauze or cotton clothing to the affected area (these should be dampened with warm water)
  4. lastly, cover the wet layer with another light layer of dry clothing and leave the dressing for three to eight hours

You can continue applying the wet dressing for 24 to 72 hours or overnight. Continue for a maximum of one week. Discuss this with your pediatrician before doing it.

5. Administer an oral antihistamine

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Itching is one of the hardest parts about eczema. For parents of babies and young children, it might seem impossible to stop them from scratching the affected areas. Scratching that injures the skin can allow bacteria to enter and cause an infection. Unfortunately, applying an antihistamine ointment, such as Benadryl, directly to the skin can actually make the eczema worse.

Giving your child an oral antihistamine, such as Claritin or Zyrtec, can actually help decrease the sensation of itchiness. Some antihistamines can make your child very sleepy (sedating) and should be taken before nap time or bedtime. Check with your pediatrician about the correct dose for your child's weight and age.

Next steps

Eczema is a fairly common skin condition that can have a lot of different causes. Working with your pediatrician, you can help to identify what makes your baby's eczema worse. They can give you suggestions for ways to manage the condition at home and ways to prevent another flare.

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