Our Story of Baby Eczema
I had no idea how distressing eczema could be until it happened to my second baby. This is the story of Josh’s eczema and, more importantly, how we got his skin back to normal.
Just Baby Eczema?
As a new-born Josh had oily skin and baby acne so at 10 weeks when his skin started to dry up I wasn’t worried, I started moisturising him with olive oil.
One morning I found his tummy covered in small red spots. He was otherwise fine and as the skin was dry I thought it was probably baby eczema. The GP agreed it was eczema and we left with our first of many prescriptions. I remember asking our doctor what he could be reacting to. He checked that J was still completely breast-fed and said it was just something that happened around this age and that his skin just needed moisturising.
I collected the prescription for an emollient and bath oil called Diprobase and to be honest, took an instant dislike. They were mineral based with an unpleasant, overpowering chemical smell to them. J had only ever been bathed in water with simple olive oil used to massage his skin and scalp. Personally I have never got on well with mineral oil products as I find they dry my skin, so I wasn’t happy covering my baby in this chemical smelling gloop. I dutifully tried it on a small area of his tummy for a while but as it didn’t help his eczema at all I contacted the GP to ask if there was a more natural alternative.
Our second prescription was for Aveeno cream and bath oil. This cream seemed less drying, but still he scratched and itched the skin on his little tummy when I applied it. I’d blob it on fast and quickly pull his vest down, but if anything his skin was getting worse, the spots were getting smaller and closer together.
By now, bath time was getting quite stressful, it seemed like his skin was reacting to the water. He’d sit in the bath and grab at his skin and after a couple of minutes his whole body would look red and feel hot to touch. At this point I stopped bathing him altogether. I’m a vet nurse and my instincts told me that if water was doing that to him, keep him out of it plus the idea of putting him through that daily seemed cruel so instead I bathed his hands, bum and armpits regularly with damp cotton wool.
I, like Josh, have sensitive skin and to me my poor boy’s little body looked like it was having a horrible reaction to something. As his skin got redder we began to notice that there seemed a definite cut-off line for the eczema – at his waist. Beneath his disposable nappy his skin seemed fine, not dry or spotty, but healthy and clear.
The Eczema Worsened
I’d been using Fairy non-bio washing laundry products since the birth of my older child. So I switched back to Ecover and stopped using fabric softener altogether. Still Josh’s’s skin got worse. His little head was starting to suffer too, getting redder and redder and his cradle cap was getting unmanageable.
Around this time he began to rub his head as he was falling asleep, and one night rubbed a patch so much it started weeping. We set off back to the doctors and when I explained I believed our problem to be laundry related, she said that as long as we were using non-bio it was very unlikely to be that. I was horrified when she mentioned oral steroids as a course of action if it continued.
We left with another prescription, for different emollient and bath oil and also a weak steroid cream for the sore patch on his head.
I got the prescription and applied the steroid to J’s poor head to clear up the weeping area. The other stuff I chucked into the back of the cupboard. I was still sure all this had to be related to contact with washed fabrics. I put some scratch mitts we had over his hands to try and stop him traumatising any more skin, but he still rubbed and rubbed.
Until the itching began he’d always been an easy baby. Contented and smiley he’d settled to sleep on his own within a few minutes of laying him down. It was a different story now. His little hands would go up to his head and he’d rub, then rub some more, and then more. The more he rubbed the itchier it got, so the more he rubbed. He couldn’t get to sleep at all, swaddled he’d thrash his head from side to side or twist to rub his head and face on the sheets. I’d feed him to sleep and lay him down but as soon as he entered light sleep 45mins later the rubbing would start again. He’d rub in his sleep till it got so sore he’d wake up with a scream. It was heart breaking.
Sleep Deprivation and Still It Gets Worse
I started to sleep with him so I could cuddle him and hold his arms down to stop him scratching. I was going to bed at 8 every night and waking every 45mins all night to hold my itchy baby’s arms by his side so he didn’t wake himself back up. We were both exhausted. Daytimes were becoming impossible - my busy 2year old girl needed caring for but Josh just couldn’t sleep.
I called my health visitor desperate for someone to tell me what to do and how to help him. She was very sympathetic, told me to apply lots of cream and mittens then just leave him to settle to sleep. I did as suggested and, oh my, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so bad about anything.
My poor baby, his eyes and face were on fire where he’d rubbed from tiredness then from itchiness and his little head was a mass of weeping lumps from where he’d rubbed and rubbed it on the sheets. His face and eyes had been clear before this and now the baby eczema was there too. I was now convinced that somehow the fabric gloves that had spread it to his face.
It was about this time his tummy had a spell of looking okay. He’d had a vest on for three days and the skin there had started to settle. Oddly when I tried to change it to a clean vest his rash would come back within a couple of hours, even brand new vests had the spots popping up fast.
Another two trips to the doctor’s later and all I had was more steroid cream. I tried explaining to the GP about the vest and the gloves and how I was sure it was his clothes, but he told me it couldn’t be dry contact with his clothing. Worse still, he made me feel stupid for suggesting it. I felt like I was going mad. I was physically and mentally exhausted, sleeping on and off in 45min spells through the night whilst pinning down my struggling son.
His face settled again over a few days with the help of the mild steroid round his eyes. I discovered Sudocrem worked wonders for him. It seemed to protect and moisturise. Keeping his face away from any fabric helped as well. His head was another story; it was a red, smelly, weeping, sore mess. I noticed when we held him that the side of his face that touched us would always be bright red for hours or more after we put him down, the same with the side he slept on. It was horrible feeling we couldn’t cuddle or comfort him without making him sore.
Taking Control and 'the Smelly Vest'
All I could think about was how to stop my baby boy being so itchy. I was obsessing about this one vest we named ‘the smelly vest’ and the doctor’s comments had me constantly second guessing myself.
Tired losing hope and sanity I took matters into my own hands, desperate to try and get to the root of my little boy’s itching. It had to be something. I had to find a reason.
I started a diary for Josh, writing down all things he was in contact with, what I had eaten or drunk and what reactions we had. I cut all dairy products from my diet and started dusting and cleaning the house as much as possible.
Any spare moment I spent searching the internet for information that might help.
After a few more days in ‘the smelly vest’ the skin on his tummy was normal, not dry or red, just normal pale soft baby skin. I guessed that the build-up of his creams in the vest must be stopping his skin reacting to it, so I started to apply layers of emollient cream to the inside of another vest, drying it between coats on the radiator.
Thankfully the second ‘creamy’ vest I’d made was fine too, so I alternated these two smelly vests on him, washing them only in water and then “creaming” them up again.
Now his tummy and face were under control I turned my attention to his scalp. I had an idea. I remembered the absorbent pads they sit you on in hospital after giving birth. A hunt of the local chemists turned up ‘Pampers Bed Mats’. A pack of large disposable absorbent sheets, they worked perfectly! I wrapped one around his mosses basket mattress, put another in his bouncy chair and kept a third on our bed for where he laid with me. That night for the first time in weeks he slept normally.
The Detergent Connection and Parent Power
I’d started to search everything I could with relation to laundry and baby eczema when I found a link to the most fantastic website. It was written by a mother who had found a solution to her own son’s severe eczema. I must have read the site about five times. Everything made sense. She told of how she discovered that her baby was reacting to detergents, not just in washing powder, but in shampoo, washing up liquid, almost all bathroom toiletries and even food.
On her site she explained the different types of eczema, how it often presents on the body, and she had instructions for ridding your home of detergents by using true soap products. She explained how she believes a large proportion of childhood eczema is caused by or worsened by detergents in the home. It was easily the most helpful and in-depth source of information I found and I’d strongly suggest anyone with a child suffering from eczema reads it.
On the site it explains a detergent ‘test’ using a true soap on the skin. I tried this one morning when J had woken with his face red raw from contact with our bedding or my clothing and washed it in a mild ‘true’ soap. It was more out of desperation than anything else, as I was literally struggling with him to stop him tearing at his face with his nails. After washing him he was instantly less frantic, and after an hour or so the redness and itching settled.
A Campaign of Detergent Elimination
It all seemed to fit together, so I ordered some soap-flakes for our laundry, some bits too bring my vacuum up to British allergy standards and some new bathroom products from the health food shop.
The old fashioned soap flakes arrived and my washing machine didn’t stop as I set about trying to remove detergent residues from all our fabrics. It took 5 or 6 washes to stop him reacting to our clothing. He still reacted to his usual clothes and previous bedding, so I just kept up with the disposable bed sheets and started to look into getting him some new clothes.
I ordered a couple of organic baby vests from the company ‘Frugi’. I’d had some things off there for my daughter so I knew how lovely and soft their products were. The vests worked fine, no spots! No itches! And as they had long sleeves his arms started to heal too. Happy I’d found ‘safe’ clothing I ordered him some sleep suits and a pair of trousers from the company too. Within days his legs were healing. Contacting the Frugi Company they confirmed no chemicals or detergents were used at all during any process of the clothing manufacture.
I was at first reluctant to wash his new ‘safe’ clothes so when I did, it was just in warm water, but it wasn’t quite cutting it with the sick smells. I found that putting a bit of bicarbonate of soda on the damp sickie bits before washing them out worked great. Any poo stains I spot-washed out with Dr Bronners Soap and rinsed really well.
Smooth, Baby-Soft Skin
It was amazing how fast his skin recovered, within days we had smooth baby skin again. I still kept it moisturised using a selection of plant based creams and Sudocrem, as a barrier cream on his face. For the first few weeks I’d notice his face go bright red when we went out to play groups or friend’s houses but with time this lessened.
The other thing that amazed me was how fast a reaction could come and go. I’d try him in other clothing and the spots would re-appear within hours. Even other brands of organic clothing had his spots coming up. I found I was able to use a few plant based detergents round the house without issue.
Josh is at school now. He’s eczema free.
He had, amongst other triggers, an extreme contact reaction to all synthetic detergents, and up until the age of two he was mildly intolerant to cow’s milk.
We quickly got better at dealing with flare ups and while he still had the same sensitive skin, we could keep him free of breakouts. When the odd flare up did occur we could usually pin it down to contact with one of his triggers.
As the years passed his skin has got less and less sensitive, I still now chose mild products and if we try to swap to a 'normal' washing powder his skin starts to get dry and itchy again.
I set up our first Itchy Baby website at the time as I wanted to share our story and our search with people whom it may help, but I also want to get ideas from other people about what worked for them. I hated the thought of parents and babies struggling with something that in some cases, perhaps many cases, could be prevented.
I’m pleased to say that over the years it’s become much more widely accepted detergents can irritate skin. Our shop grew out of our original website seven years ago. It was much harder to find detergent free alternatives; I started buying the items I needed in bulk and selling them onto other parents keen to see if it helped their children. We now offer a wide range of parent approved products to make life with baby eczema a bit easier.