Baby Scratching Face: Why Does It Happen And How To Prevent It

✔ Research-backed

If you have noticed scratch marks on your baby’s face, it is quite understandable to feel upset or anxious. However, these marks have likely been caused by your baby scratching their own face. Nevertheless, parents should be wary about babies scratching themselves.

Scratch marks on babies’ faces are common due to their sensitive skin. Even activities such as bathing and massaging may cause you to accidentally scratch their delicate skin.

This post discusses the various reasons babies scratch their faces and ways to prevent scratch marks and skin infections caused by scratching.

In This Article

Why Do Babies Scratch Their Face?

There are several reasons why a baby scratches their face. Some of the common ones include.

  1. Exploring face:
    Baby scratching face

    Image: Shutterstock

    According to research, touching one’s face is an instinct that babies develop in utero. It is considered a sign of healthy fetal development, and the habit continues after birth. Exploring one’s body and the desire to sense new sensations could make a baby touch their face and scratch it accidentally. It could be the reason for scratch marks on the baby’s face when no other apparent reasons are present (1).

  1. Moro reflex: Newborns do not have adequate control of most body movements until they are a few weeks old (2). It is when reflexes come into use. Moro reflex, also known as the startle reflex, is an involuntary response wherein a baby arches their back and throws their arms, legs, and neck in response to a sudden movement or loud noise. It is during this involuntary reflex that a baby may touch their face and scratch it accidentally.
  1. Sharp nails:
    Babies' nails grow pretty fast

    Image: Shutterstock

    Although babies have thin nails, they grow pretty fast. Sometimes, you may need to trim them twice a week (3). If you forget to upkeep, a baby may accidentally scratch themselves at any time.

  1. Dry skin: Babies have thin and permeable skin susceptible to moisture loss. Bathing the baby too often, using harsh soap,  applying baby talcs and prolonged exposure to hot or cold weather conditions with low humidity can degrade their skin barrier, causing moisture loss (4). Moisture loss can make ababy’s skin dry and flaky, triggering itchiness and irritation.
  1. Skin conditions: Atopic dermatitis, eczema, scabies, and miliaria (prickly heat or baby heat rash) are some skin conditions that cause itchy skin rashes (5). These rashes may irritate the baby and cause them to scratch their skin often. The itchiness due to these skin conditions resolves or alleviates once the treatment begins.
  1. Upset baby:
    Upset babies can scratch their face inadvertently

    Image: Shutterstock

    Sometimes, when a baby is upset, they may accidentally scratch their nose, forehead, or scalp, as they cannot express themselves conventionally.

protip_icon Quick fact
Mosquito bites, reaction to a medication, and diseases such as shingles, can cause itching, which can make a baby scratch their face (8).

When Do Babies Stop Scratching Their Face?

Dr. Sonia Cajigal, a board-certified allergist and immunologist from Greater St. Louis, says, “Babies generally stop scratching their face after they are six months old and have better motor control. If they’re scratching due to eczema or itchy skin (eczema affects the cheeks in infancy), it tends to diminish after two.”

Based on the cause, a baby may cease scratching their face within a few weeks after birth or take a little longer. For instance, scratching the face due to uncontrolled movements may end once the baby has better control of their muscles and body movements. Treating skin conditions can stop scratching or may alleviate it to a significant extent.

In most cases, a baby scratching their face is a temporary issue and seldom causes scarring. However, if the scratching persists or worsens, consult a pediatrician. Sustained scratching might cause deep grooves and soreness which may make the baby’s skin susceptible to infections.

protip_icon Did you know?
Psoriasis and atopic dermatitis (eczema) are the most common causes of nocturnal itching, which could cause a baby to scratch their face while asleep (9).

How To Prevent Babies From Scratching Their Face?

You can prevent a baby from scratching their face by identifying and avoiding the triggers. Here are some of the tips that you could try.

  1. Skin moisturization: Apply a gentle, unscented moisturizing lotion twice a day to retain and add moisture to the skin. You can also prevent skin dryness by limiting your baby’s bath time, avoiding harsh soaps, and dressing them in clothes made of light fabrics. Adequate skin moisturization can help avoid dryness-related scratching to a great extent. If your baby’s skin is overly sensitive, try replacing the soap with a mild baby bath gel. Powders, even baby talcs, may be avoided.

Dr. Cajigal suggests, “The best topical preparations for the face are fragrance-free creams and ointments (for example, CeraVe, Vaseline), as these will help the skin retain moisture. Lotions are fine but have higher water content and do not absorb into the skin well.”

Use unscented moisturizing lotion on your baby's skin

Image: Shutterstock

  1. Nail trimming: Timely nail trimming or clipping can prevent accidental scratching of the face. Calm moments, such as when the baby is sleeping or feeding, are the best times to cut their nails. You can use a baby nail clipper to trim or an emery board to file your baby’s nails (6). A baby nail cutting scissors is also a good option. Choose the instrument you are most comfortable with. Stay calm while trimming or filing your baby’s nails to prevent accidental cutting and nipping that may cause damage to the skin around the nails.
  1. Covering hands: Swaddling wraps your baby’s hands and is a suitable way to prevent accidental scratching of the face due to uncontrolled movements. Alternatively, you can use soft mittens or socks to cover the baby’s hands (6). Remove strings or any other accessory attached to mittens or socks to avoid accidental choking. The use of mittens is common; however, some experts feel that they are not needed if you trim or file the nails on time (7). Stay-on scratch sleeves are another option to check with your doctor if mittens aren’t helping much.
  1. Treating skin issues: If your baby has a skin problem, treating it is the best solution to prevent scratching. While you can try over-the-counter options to alleviate skin dryness, consulting a doctor to treat a skin condition is advisable. Prompt treatment is vital to protect your baby’s skin from further damage that might happen due to skin infections.
  1. Ensure your baby is not unduly uncomfortable. Look for signs of hunger and feed before they make the baby distinctly cranky. Take care of other things bugging the baby like hot or cold surroundings, feeling drowsy but inability to self soothe. As you gain experience, you will be able to pick up these cues earlier.

Besides these interventions, maintain a steady baby’s room temperature, especially during winter, when most households use heaters. Heaters reduce humidity, making a baby’s skin dry and triggering itchiness, which can lead to scratching.

protip_icon Point to consider
Dehydration can cause babies to have dry, itchy skin. Keeping babies optimally hydrated can help prevent scratching.

How To Treat Scratches?

Use antibacterial soap to clean the area

Image: Shutterstock

While preventing scratching is best, it is good to learn some tips to care for scratches already present.

  • Gently clean the scratches as soon as you notice them. Use lukewarm water and antibacterial soap to clean the area.
  • Pat the area dry and apply gentle, unscented moisturizer or antiseptic cream.
  • Leave deeper scratches open to heal. Keep the scratches moist with antibacterial creams or ointments that can act as a barrier against germs.
  • Trim your baby’s nails and cover their hands with mittens to ensure the baby doesn’t scratch their face further.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can I use Vaseline on my baby’s face?

As unscented petroleum jelly (Vaseline) is a good moisturizer for babies (10) so you may apply it on their skin. However, it is advisable to check with your doctor if you spot rashes or sores on the baby’s skin after using Vaseline.

2. Do teething babies rub their faces?

No scientific evidence proves that babies rub their faces when they are teething. But teething babies drool, and it might cause them discomfort leading them to rub or scratch their faces.

3. What should I do if my baby’s scratched area starts to bleed?

You may clean the area and treat it with a gentle moisturizer or an antiseptic cream. If the cut or abrasion is severe, take your baby to the doctor to get the necessary treatments.

Babies scratching their faces is a common occurrence either due to moro reflex or other reasons, including dry skin and sharp nails. However, it is important to follow certain preventative measures to ensure that they prevent the baby from scratching their faces. By keeping your baby’s skin moisturized, making them wear mittens, and trimming their nails short, one can likely prevent these scratches from occurring. In addition, based on the cause of the scratching, it may subside on its own eventually as the child gains more control over their muscles and movements.

Infographic: When Should You Worry About Your Baby’s Face Scratching?

Face scratching may be common, and, in most cases, babies outgrow this behavior. However, you must be mindful of specific indications of when it can become concerning and harmful for your baby. This infographic will help you understand those signs to take appropriate and timely steps.

concerning signs of baby’s face scratching (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • Babies may scratch their faces when they are upset, exploring themselves, or due to Moro reflex.
  • Skin conditions such as eczema and dry skin may also cause irritation or itching on the face, making them scratch.
  • Moisturizing, keeping nails trim, and covering hands with gloves can prevent them from scratching faces.
baby scratching face_illustration

Image: Stable Diffusion/MomJunction Design Team

References

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

1. Why we touch our faces so much – and how to break the habit; The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
2. Movement Milestones: Birth to 3 Months; Healthy Children; AAP
3. Nail Care: Fingers and Toes; Healthy Children; AAP
4. Dry skin; Raising children
5. Skin rashes in babies; Nidirect
6. Trimming baby nails; Raising children
7. How long is it appropriate to keep hand mittens on a newborn baby?; Healthy Children; AAP
8. 10 Reasons Your Skin Itches Uncontrollably And How To Get Relief; AAD
9. Emily Boozalis et al.; Itching at night: A review on reducing nocturnal pruritus in children; NCBI (2018)
10. Emollients to Prevent Eczema in High-Risk Infants: An Integrative Review; Marquette University

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Dr. Pooja Parikh

Dr. Pooja ParikhMBBS, DCH, DNB

Dr. Pooja Parikh is a pediatrician with 11 years of experience in the field. Her medical journey has taken her from Rajkot (PDUMC) to Vadodara (SSGH) to Mumbai (Hinduja & Breach Candy Hospital). Currently, she is actively involved in critical, intensive, and general care of 0 to 18-year-olds in the port town of Gandhidham, where she was born and brought...read full bio