Birthmarks come in many shapes, sizes and colours - and the vast majority are completely harmless to a baby’s health.
They are also extremely common in newborns. Around four in five babies will have some type of mark on their skin or develop one soon after birth, according to Professor John Harper.
“Birthmarks are a minor flaw in the development of the skin and they come in different colours and sizes depending on the tissue involved,” says Professor Harper, a Consultant in Paediatric Dermatology at The Portland Hospital.
“The majority are harmless and of no concern (treatment-wise).”
These visible marks, which can range from pink to dark brown, first occur when the baby’s skin is developing.
However, they are in no way triggered by any issues during pregnancy.
“It’s a myth that the mother somehow causes them while expecting,” explains Professor Harper.
The commonest causes of birthmarks are abnormal blood vessels (vascular birthmarks) and pigment cells forming in clusters (pigmented birthmarks).
Around one in five children has the most common vascular birthmark which appears as a flat red mark on the skin known as a ‘salmon patch’ or ‘stork mark’.
This tends to occur on the back of the neck, between the eyes or on the upper eyelids and does not require treatment, according to Professor Harper.
He says: “Once your child reaches the age of two then the marks on the face are likely to be hardly visible.”
Haemangiomas or ‘strawberry marks’ are also a result of abnormal blood vessels and affect one in 10 children.
These red or purple lumps can get bigger until your child reaches six months but eventually vanish within three to seven years without treatment.
However, Professor Harper says lumps can be ‘troublesome’, for example, if they occur around the eye.
The drug propranolol can be used to treat these as long as it’s administered by a specialist.
Propranolol, a beta blocker, is a pioneering new non-surgical treatment that effectively reduces the colour and size of birthmarks by reducing the amount of blood flowing through them.
Another birthmark which appears on the face is the port wine stain.
Michael Gorbachev, the former Soviet President, was born with this type of vascular birthmark which occurs in three in every 1,000 babies.
“Appearing as a flat red area of skin, port wine stains are often on one side of the face,” says Professor Harper.
“These birthmarks respond well to laser treatment, with treatment starting usually when the child is over one year old.”
While Professor Harper stresses that the majority of birthmarks are entirely harmless, early diagnosis is important if they pose a health risk.
He says: “Birthmarks are very common but some may require further investigation and management.
“In rare cases, they (birthmarks) can be associated with more serious medical complications and in these cases early intervention is important.”
For example, port wine stains can be associated with brain problems if they’re on the scalp and forehead. This is known as Sturge-Weber syndrome, a condition which is associated with seizures and glaucoma.
What if your child has a harmless birthmark which doesn’t fade and they feel self-conscious?
The Birthmark Support Group advises that parents should always seek advice from a specialist, not just rely on their GP’s opinion.
Jo Webb, the charity’s spokesperson, says: “Birthmarks can impact on a child’s confidence but it really depends exactly where on the body the birthmark is.
“GPs can wrongly dismiss birthmarks as forceps marks. If parents are worried, they should first get expert advice to determine the exact type of birthmark their child has.”
All babies born at The Portland Hospital are examined for birthmarks as part of the skin screening service. Any troublesome birthmarks are flagged with parents so that they can discuss any concerns that they may have with Professor Harper, the on site Consultant Dermatologist.
By Sophie Goodchild