There's a reason people can't resist stroking babies' faces and nuzzling the tops of their heads. An infant's skin is the ultimate blank slate, free of all the marks we accumulate over a lifetime. When we touch the smooth curve of a baby's forehead, we are filled with a sense of newness and possibility. But baby skin needs more than nuzzling. Sun, pollutants and the very process of living take their toll. But lest you be tempted to overdo it, remember -- with babies, less is best. "The basic rule is don't do anything to aggravate the skin," says Nelson Lee Novick, M.D., author of Baby Skin. "The less you wipe and irritate it, the better." Here's how to give that extra-special skin the protection it deserves.
1. A Bumpy Start
While many organs develop early in pregnancy, it takes almost the full nine months in the womb for a baby's skin to mature. "What we think of as normal skin is formed in the last trimester," explains Seth Orlow, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatric dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center. Even so, a new baby looks less like someone in a Dove commercial and more like a kid who's crawled out of a Clearasil ad. Infant acne -- tiny pink bumps on a baby's face and chest -- usually occurs in a fifth of all newborns in their first month of life. The culprit is mom's hormones in baby's body after birth.
Baby That Skin: Unlike adult acne, infant acne requires no special care. Just keep your baby's skin clean and dry, and don't squeeze the pimples -- it could lead to scarring -- or apply any lotions or treatments. The acne should resolve after several weeks but may last longer in breastfed babies. If the problem persists for more than three months, worsens, or seems itchy or uncomfortable, it may be something different -- eczema, for example -- and you should contact your pediatrician.
2. Bath Basics
Ours is a culture obsessed with cleanliness, which means that parents tend to overdo it when it comes to bathing their beauties. Dips in the tub aren't advised until the umbilical stump falls off and until a boy's circumcision heals. Until then, a gentle sponge bath of the bottom and genitals is plenty.
Baby That Skin: When tub time does roll around, go easy on the suds, especially if your little one has a rash of any kind. Give your baby a tub bath twice a week until she starts eating solids and crawling -- getting dirtier. Soap can irritate baby's skin, so skip it or choose mild, scent-free products. Whatever you use, "Stick with it to limit the variety of chemicals you expose your baby to," advises Alfred Lane, M.D., professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine.
3. Wash and Wear
Babies, especially newborns, tend to have sensitive skin, so the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends washing new clothing and towels before using them. Although there are special "baby" laundry detergents, which leave less residue after washing, it's perfectly fine to use regular detergents.
Baby That Skin: Skin conditions are often genetic, so if you have sensitive skin, your baby might too. If your child develops irritation or a rash on body parts that his clothes come in contact with, your detergent could be to blame. Try switching to a milder baby detergent or one that is "free and clear" of allergens, dyes and fragrances.
4. Here Comes the Sun
Your first thought is probably to slather your little bundle in sunscreen. But for babies under 6 months, that's not a good idea. Babies have more skin surface than adults, so they receive a higher dose of chemicals. This increases the odds of an adverse reaction, according to Jennifer Shu, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician and co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn. Instead, keep babies under 6 months in the shade and use protective clothing.
Baby That Skin: When choosing a sunscreen, pick one with the highest sun protection factor (SPF) available, with SPF 30 being the minimum, Dr. Shu says. Look for the words "broad-spectrum" on the label. That means it will block both UVA and UVB rays. Try a sunblock with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which offer the best protection and are unlikely to cause allergic reactions. If your baby is older than 6 months, it's OK to cover her entire body with sunscreen.
5. The Bottom Side
Chances are you've already encountered a diaper rash -- and if you haven't, you will. The materials that keep diapers from leaking also prevent air from circulating, creating the perfect environment for a rash to breed.
Baby That Skin: The cleaner and drier baby's bottom, the less likely his skin will become irritated. Clean baby with water and a washcloth or baby wipe during every diaper change, then allow his skin to dry completely before applying a diaper cream that contains moisture-blocking zinc oxide. Also, give baby some diaper-free time on a towel a few minutes every day.