Shaken baby syndrome results when a parent or caregiver vents his or her frustration on a baby or young child. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), violently shaking a baby can cause severe injuries, lifelong brain damage and death. Most cases happen when a caregiver loses his or her temper while trying to stop a baby’s crying. Many cases of shaken baby syndrome are accidental, but all are preventable examples of child abuse.
The NIH states that most shaken baby syndrome injuries occur in babies younger than age 2. Some cases have involved children as old as 5.
The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome (NCSBS) reports that no comprehensive statistics on shaken baby syndrome exist. A study in Scotland estimated roughly 24 cases per 100,000 infants each year. A similar study at the University of North Carolina found that an average of 1,200 U.S. infants experience severe or fatal head trauma from child abuse during the first year of life.
Parents and babysitters are most likely to shake a baby. NCSBS estimates that two-thirds of cases involve males–usually the father or mother’s boyfriend.
Mechanism of Injury
According to the NIH, shaken baby syndrome leads to injury because violent shaking causes a baby’s brain to bounce against its skull. In addition, the shaking can injure the baby’s spine and ribcage. Shaking a baby can result in brain damage, nerve damage, retinal bleeding, broken bones and death.
Frustration with a baby’s crying is the leading trigger of shaken baby syndrome. According to NCSBS, toilet training and feeding problems may also trigger a caregiver’s frustration.
NIH warns that injuries caused by shaken may escape notice. Signs include extreme fussiness, loss of appetite, sleepiness, breathing difficulties, vomiting, tremors and pale or bluish skin. Seek immediate emergency medical care for these symptoms. If you observe a baby being violently shaken, seek a pediatrician’s advice on how to get help for the infant.
According to NCSBS, most infants who survive severe shaking face a high risk for developmental delays, nerve damage and cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, and hearing and vision problems.
Gently swinging or playing with a baby cannot cause shaken baby syndrome.
While accidents like falling or tripping can cause similar injuries, the damage caused by shaken baby syndrome tends to be much more severe.
NIH urges caregivers:
1) Never shake a baby or child.
2) Avoid holding a baby when feeling angry or having an argument.
3) Call someone for help or support when feeling angry or frustrated with a child.
4) Contact a child abuse hot line or counselor if needed.
5) Consider parenting classes or anger management counseling if frustration becomes a constant problem.
An NCSBS program, the Period of Purple Crying seeks to help people understand why babies cry and how to reduce the stress of caring for an infant.