When my niece was born several weeks ago, cute and adorable as she was, all I seemed to focus on were the pale pink patches in the middle of her forehead and under her nose.
She had a beautiful crop of thick black hair and soft blue eyes, but — oh my God — she had a birthmark. The truth is, in our appearance-conscious society, birthmarks have severe stigmas, and my first thought was: Will it go away?
My reaction wasn’t unique, according to Dr. Richard Antaya, associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics and director of pediatric dermatology at Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Conn. “Most parents are really upset about a birthmark,” he said. “They’re expecting a perfect baby.” Not a lot is known about birthmarks, which often makes them mysterious to people.
“Psychosocially it’s damaging for parents,” Antaya said. “People often don’t think before they speak, and will gasp when they look at a new baby and say, ‘Oh, what happened to him?'”
But while parents should be concerned about red birthmarks, in most cases they are nothing to worry about and will fade. Birthmarks are the result of an abnormal fetal development of blood vessels, and come in many shapes and sizes; the two major types are hemangiomas and port wine stains.
Hemangiomas are red vascular birthmarks, commonly called strawberry marks, which may be flat or raised. “They’re really tumors of immature blood vessels,” Antaya said, and they may either grow or remain the same size. They’re the result of too many blood vessels in one spot. A port wine stain is an abnormal collection of dilated blood vessels that gives the skin a red appearance. With a port wine stain, the number of vessels is normal, but they’re dilated.
Statistics show that 1 in 10 children are born with a birthmark, and 1 in 100 will require medical treatment. Most birthmarks are harmless vascular marks, otherwise known as “stork bites” and “angel kisses” that will fade as the child grows.
About 50 percent of birthmarks will fade by time a child turns 5, 70 percent by age 7, and 90 percent by age 9, according to Antaya. About 40 percent will fade without a mark, and 60 percent can leave a scar or mark on the skin.
“With the majority of them, we usually say ‘Wait and see. Let nature take its course,’ ” Antaya said. The trouble with birthmarks is that no one knows why they occur, and to further complicate things, not a lot of doctors fully understand and treat birthmarks. “The problem is that this area of medicine doesn’t fall under any particular discipline,” said Linda Shannon, founder and executive director of the national Vascular Birthmarks Foundation in Albany, N.Y.
When Shannon’s daughter was born with a hemangioma, she wasn’t satisfied with her pediatrician’s advice to wait and see if it resolved itself. She began doing her own research, eventually taking her to Dr. Milton Waner of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, a leading U.S. specialist in diagnosing and treating birthmarks.