Human milk? Baking soda? Pediatricians share dos and don'ts for treating diaper rash at home.
Medically reviewed by Wendy L. Hunter, M.D.
Crying is one of the few ways infants, particularly newborns, can communicate. Still, parents naturally want to keep it to a minimum. It’s challenging to see your little one upset (spoiler alert: these feelings don’t change as they grow).
One rather unwelcome reason a baby may be crying is a common but pesky issue: diaper rash. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) defines diaper rash as “any rash that develops inside the diaper area. Most babies get diaper rash, but it is usually not serious.”
So, what’s all the literal fuss about?
“Diaper rash can be pesky for parents because it can cause discomfort and pain for the baby,” says Daniel Ganjian, MD, FAAP, a board-certified pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calfornia. “It may lead to crying, fussiness, and difficulty sleeping. Parents often want to know how to rectify and prevent it to ensure their baby's well-being.”
Though generally not severe, diaper rashes, hallmarked by bright red skin in mild cases and open sores in more severe ones, aren’t the easiest to nix. “Diaper rashes can be tough to get rid of because babies are typically always in a diaper,” says Amanda Stovall, MD, an Illinois-based pediatrician.
Treating a diaper rash can feel extra challenging when trying to soothe a baby at 3 a.m. It may send parents searching for at-home remedies, like human milk or baking soda. Are they safe? How about effective? Experts discuss at-home diaper rash treatments, prevention, and more.
What Causes Diaper Rash?
Pediatricians say that diaper rashes can have several causes. “The most common is simply from skin irritation from stool and urine,” Dr. Stovall says.
Dr. Ganjian adds that other causes of diaper rash include:
Friction. The rubbing of the diaper against a baby’s skin can cause irritation.
Chafing. Diapers or clothes that are too tight are common culprits.
Bacterial or yeast infections. “The diaper area can be a breeding ground for bacteria or yeast, leading to infections,” Dr. Ganjian says.
Introduction of new foods. Babies' bowel movements change as they begin eating solid foods, which might also irritate them.
At-Home Diaper Rash Treatments You Can Try
It’s natural to want to spring into action to help a baby feel better, including when they have a diaper rash. Though generally not serious, Dr. Stovall says parents will want to treat diaper rashes promptly.
“Diaper rashes can progress quickly, so staying on top of any skin irritation can help keep your baby’s skin healthy,” Dr. Stovall says.
Here are at-home treatments that may be effective.
Switch up diaper changes
Give the wipes a day or two off while treating a diaper rash. “Clean the area with warm water and a clean, soft cloth,” Dr. Stovall suggests. “Occasionally, wipes and other cleaners with oils and other extracts can be irritating to already compromised skin.”
Another pediatrician agrees: “Don’t use wet wipes—use water,” says Gina Posner, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Though parents generally rush to get a new diaper on ASAP (if you know, you know), Dr. Stovall says pausing might help. “Allowing the skin to air dry helps stop the growth of yeast and bacteria,” Dr. Stovall says.
Whatever you do: “When your baby has a rash, avoid rubbing excessively with baby wipes and harsh soaps,” Dr. Ganjian says.
Human milk can be a safe and potentially effective way to treat diaper rash. “Applying breast milk to the rash can have healing properties,” Dr. Ganjian says.
Research from 2019 indicates breast milk has antibodies, a protein called epidermal growth factor (EGF), and a red cell-making hormone called erythropoietin, all of which could promote the healing of skin cells. Other research from 2017 also found human milk could aid in diaper rash treatment.
One caveat: “Be careful that the area is not staying overly moist throughout the day and night,” Dr. Stovall says.
Ointments and creams
You may already have a diaper rash treatment in your medicine cabinet. Ones that experts recommend include:
Petroleum jelly: Dr. Stovall says it's a "a safe ointment to use on a baby, even very young ones."
Zinc oxide creams: These are "great barrier creams for the diaper area and also have some soothing and healing effects on the skin," says Dr. Stovall.
Colloidal oatmeal: Dr. Ganjian suggests adding colloidal oatmeal, or finely ground oats mixed in lotions and other skincare products, to a bath. Research found adding colloidal oatmeal to skincare treatments helped adults with eczema, though it’s unclear if that would translate to infants. Remember, infants have sensitive skin. Start by adding a small amount, like a tablespoon, to warm water and monitor your little one for added irritation.
If you’re fresh out of Vaseline, another remedy may be lurking in another cabinet: coconut or olive oil. You can add light layers of one of these on the diaper area, according to the experts.
Evidence about olive and coconut oils for diaper rash treatment is purely anecdotal at this time, though one study from 2018 indicates plant oils may have healing properties.
At-Home Diaper Rash Treatments To Avoid
Experts advise using caution with these:
Aloe vera gel: “While aloe vera may be soothing, many products have additional ingredients that may be irritating to a baby’s sensitive skin,” Dr. Stovall says. For this reason, Dr. Ganjian only recommends using all-natural aloe vera. A small 2012 study of less than 70 infants with diaper rash indicated a gel containing aloe vera and olive oil as active ingredients improved the issue.
Steroid creams: "I generally avoid using steroid creams, like hydrocortisone cream, until after you’ve spoken with your physician, especially in babies less than 3 months old,” Dr. Stovall says.
Baking soda: "Baking soda can help keep the skin dry, but the AAP cautions against powders like this and baby powder as they are easily inhaled, especially with prolonged use,” Dr. Stovall says.
Preventing Diaper Rash
Odds are, your kiddo will get a diaper rash at some point (remember, most kids are in diapers for multiple years). However, you can take a few steps to keep those rashes to a minimum.
Some of the at-home treatments mentioned above can even be used preemptively to avoid diaper rashes to begin with. “I like putting a protectant such as Vaseline or a zinc-based diaper cream with each diaper change If a child has sensitive skin,” Dr. Posner says.
Dr. Ganjian adds these tips can help:
Frequent diaper changes
Keeping the diaper area clean and dry
Ensuring a diaper fits and is breathable
Opting for soft, unscented wipes or warm water
Gently cleaning the area during changes
Letting the diaper area air out
Be mindful of diet and note foods that seem to cause rashes
When To Call a Provider About Diaper Rashes
Call your baby's health care provider if the rash hasn’t healed in three to four days, says Dr. Posner.
Also, look out for the following red flags, according to Dr. Stovall:
The rash appears beefy red
The rash is oozing
Severe discomfort during diaper changes
Finally, look for other issues that can arise outside the diaper area too. “It is not uncommon if your baby develops a yeast infection in the diaper area to have yeast in the mouth also—this is called thrush,” Dr. Stovall says. “If your baby has white patches in their mouth and a diaper rash, check in with your doctor.”
The pediatrician can help your baby (and you) find some comfort.
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