Anyone who has dealt with eczema in babies and young children knows how relentless it can be; constant vigilance is required to keep it under control. After 5 years we’ve now finally got to a point where our kids’ eczema is pretty much under control. It’s taken lots of perseverance, trial and error, medical appointments and – most helpfully – learning from other parents.
So, here is what I’ve learned over the years. No medical advice (I’ll leave that to the professionals), just practical tips. Of course, it will be different for every child, but these are things I wish I had known to try earlier.
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Practical tips, from years of experience
Eczema has affected both my children, but has particularly been a problem for my eldest. The main trigger for him is his food allergens (dairy, eggs, soy and previously wheat). But even strictly staying away from those, his eczema has persevered with unexplained flare ups and occasional infections.
As well as causing soreness and itching, eczema has a massive effect on the practicalities of daily life. I learnt early on that trying to slather a wriggly young baby with emollient whilst attempting to keep it off their flailing hands (and inevitably going straight into their mouth) requires some pretty impressive ninja style skills. At least it is good practice for when they turn into toddlers and can actually run away from you. Trying to catch a half moisturised child and make them stay still is akin to trying to grab a slippery eel…
It all takes so much time and emotional energy!! I hope that some of what I am sharing here can help move you forwards with getting into a good eczema care routine.
How can I help my baby’s eczema?
Finding the right emollient
First, some basics. Finding the right emollient cream – and applying it correctly – is really key. They may look the same but they are all different; keep going until you find an emollient cream that works for your child. Emollient creams are not all equal, and different things work for different people – we tried at least five before settling on one which worked for my son.
Don’t be afraid to go back to your GP to ask for something different. They will often prescribe the cheapest first, but they do have a range of options available.
In your desperation to find a solution, you are likely to do a lot of googling and you will almost certainly come across various claims about miracle creams. Honestly, there is no miracle cream that will work for everyone. Trust me, if it existed we would all know about it. There may be some creams you can buy that work better than what your doctor is prescribing. But when you see wildly over inflated claims about effectiveness (with a big price tag attached) that is a red flag to steer clear.
Tips for applying emollient
Staying on the theme of emollient creams, it took me a while to get good advice about how to apply it effectively. A quick smear is not enough, you need to apply a generous amount and make sure you get into all skin folds and creases (behind ears/knees/armpits can be eczema hot spots).
Emollients should be applied every day, regardless of whether the eczema is active or not. Our standard is twice a day (morning and evening), but during a flare up it can be multiple times a day. Apply in gentle, downward strokes. Don’t vigorously rub it in – this can be really irritating to the skin.
The Itchy Sneezy Wheezy site has some videos about how to effectively apply emollient.
The National Eczema Society has some great fact sheets about eczema treatments which can be used alongside emollients to treat flare ups.
If you are using any prescribed creams, make sure to ask your GP how much of a gap to leave after between creams, and what order to apply. When the kids were babies I would put scratch mitts on them while waiting to put the next creams on, as otherwise it would get all over their hands and straight into their mouths!
Unfortunately, a lot of children with eczema will get skin infections. If your child’s eczema is not responding to usual treatments or is looking different to usual (for example particularly angry, or crusty/weeping) then it’s definitely worth seeing a GP as soon as possible
To avoid infections, make sure you keep your children’s fingernails short and smooth. This minimises the risk of skin being broken when they itch, which makes it susceptible to getting infected. You can get bath oils (e.g. Dermol 600) which have an antimicrobial in them.
Finally, always wash your hands before applying your child’s cream.
Work out their eczema triggers
This is the biggie, and what I have dedicated the rest of this article to. The best advice I can give to the question ’what can i do to help my baby’s eczema’ is to work out their triggers. Once you know what they are, there are practical steps you can take to address each one.
Possible eczema triggers for babies and children
You will probably find that there are multiple things which trigger your child’s eczema. And, just to keep you on your toes, it can change throughout the year and as they get older. When trying to work this out, keep a diary of any flare ups. This can help you or your doctor spot any patterns.
There are certain common factors which can trigger eczema flare ups. I’ve set out a section for each of these below, including practical steps you can take to address them. I’ve learned a lot about each from talking to eczema experts, other eczema parents, and doing lots of research! But please do remember, these are tips from another parents experience and not medical advice.
Eczema is a very individual thing, and there will undoubtedly be some things I haven’t covered. But I hope by considering each of these you can start to get on top what might be causing your child’s eczema to flare.
On his first skin prick test my son had shown a slight reaction to dust mites, but not enough to reach an allergy threshold. Given all the other triggers we were dealing with, it wasn’t something I gave much thought to.
Then as he got older, the eczema on his face (particularly around his eyes and cheeks), became much more of a problem. His specialist suggested this may be a dust mite issue and, as predicted, his next skin prick test showed the reaction to dust mites had become worse.
At first I panicked that I would be spending every waking minute hoovering and dusting, but actually putting in place some other really simple measures made a big difference (I’m afraid the hoovering is still important – and don’t forget under the bed – but you don’t necessarily need to go into overdrive with it).
We started using specialist allergy-barrier mattress and pillow protectors. We now wash all sheets, pillows and duvets regularly at 60 degrees to kill off the mites. Overnight we use an air purifier* in his bedroom.
For us that has been enough, but you can find information about further steps to take on this Allergy UK fact sheet.
Laundry powders can be a big irritant for children with even the mildest eczema. You can get detergents designed for sensitive skins (such as Surcare) but at minimum make sure whatever you are using is non-bio.
Whichever detergent you are using, running an extra rinse cycle at the end of every wash helps to get rid of any residue.
It’s also worth asking anyone the kids spend a lot of time with to switch to non-bio – particularly if it is someone who gives them lots of cuddles or somewhere they nap/sleep over.
Sun tan lotion
Until we found a good sun cream for the kids, my heart sank every time the sun started shining. Even sunscreens marketed at sensitive skin seemed to bring on a reaction. This seems to be a common issue. Unfortunately it is very personalised which means the whole thing involves a bit of trial and error.
If you are struggling with this, check out my post about the most frequently recommended sunscreens by parents of children with eczema.
At age 3 my son had a bad eczema relapse, with loads of unexplained flare ups and multiple infections. I went into overdrive thinking that he must have developed further food allergies and drove myself crazy trying to work it out .
A few months and another skin prick test later, it became clear that he had developed a pretty big reaction to early tree pollen. The skin flare ups were his main reaction, and hay fever never occurred to me because I always associated it with sore eyes and stuffy noses.
He now takes daily antihistamine for early tree pollen season – late Feb to May. We also use Haymax barrier cream* under his nose, keep windows closed in the mornings when pollen levels are highest and don’t line dry any clothes over these months. It does feel wrong using the tumble drier when the sun is shining, but we noticed this causing flare ups even when he had anti histamine.
Once we realised that airborne allergens (dust and pollen) were eczema triggers for my son, then we started using an air purifier in his room at night. It’s a bit difficult to tell how much difference this makes, but my feeling is that as part of the range of measures we are taking it is worth doing. If you decide to buy an air purifier check out the specification carefully to make sure they are effective at trapping the particular allergen you need to avoid. After checking out LOTS of reviews we have gone with a Levoit*.
There are a number of other practical steps you can take to help your child’s hayfever. If you are struggling with this, check out my hayfever tips post.
This is an enormous topic – and one that most of this website is dedicated to! So here I will just say that for us, my children’s food allergies are major eczema triggers. Excluding their allergens from their diet goes a long way to reducing the number and severity of flare ups.
Bubble baths and soap
I’m afraid you will need to step away from the lovely smelling bubble baths in favour of something a bit blander; bath time can be a minefield for eczema sufferers.
When the kids were younger, we stuck to using their prescribed emollient as a soap substitute. This does not give you a sweet smelling baby but really is the best solution. It should be applied before bath time, but beware that this makes babies really slippy – I found that using a flannel to lift in and out, plus a good baby bath support* for younger babies, helped.
In the bath there are antimicrobial bath oils you can use such as Dermol 600. On the advice of other eczema parents, we also now use dead sea salts*. For us it is has caused no flare ups, and the kids love dissolving it in the bath!
Once eczema is well managed you may be able to try something a bit more adventurous, but stick to the really gentle products. As my kids have got older, I have started to use some other products, but have found anything containing SLS can be irritating, and this can be found even in products marketed as being for sensitive baby skin.
If sore skin on your child’s hands is an issue, you can check out my post all about eczema and handwashing.
Messy play at nursery and school can give eczema parents major headaches. If you can’t work out why your child is having flare ups it’s worth talking to the teachers about what they have been using – I once found that my egg allergic son had been playing with egg noodles. Obviously I had a lot to say about that! They were very open to feedback and I suggested some easy switches they could make (e.g. rice noodles). Once they understood, they were very happy to do so.
Perfumes and cosmetics
It is worth politely asking any heavily perfumed relatives to lay off when they see you. Strong perfumes and cosmetics can be irritating to sensitive skins, and some skin creams can even contain milk, soy and other allergens. So, it’s always worth checking.
Whether or not the sun is out, keeping cool is important to help sooth the eczema itch – particularly at night. Using light sheets and duvets, and choosing pyjamas in natural breathable fabrics can really help with a good night’s sleep. It is possible to get specialist sleepwear for eczema sufferers, including scratch sleeves which cover children’s hands and help them to stop itching in their sleep. We’ve never had to use these, but I know they’ve been an essential for some – worth looking into if itching at night is a problem.
Support for managing eczema
It’s no exaggeration to say that managing eczema in small children is a daily battle, and at times it can feel overwhelming. If you are struggling, I have got a post all about free and low cost ways in which parents can get extra support with managing allergies. This includes some eczema focused organisations with helplines and free webinars.
These are the things which have worked for us, and I hope you find it helpful.
I was keen not to accidentally stray into giving medical advice, so I haven’t said what specific creams we use. I will say that we use twice daily emollients, a combination of medicated creams as needed (kept to a minimum, but they really are a life saver for getting things back under control) and anti-histamine during tree pollen season.
Have I missed any tips or tricks that you have found helpful for managing eczema? Please share your experiences in the comments below!
Post updated 23 May 2023
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