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What is Shaken Baby Syndrome?

shaken baby syndrome

Shaken baby syndrome is a serious and traumatic brain injury that occurs when a baby or a toddler is violently shaken. Babies have weak neck muscles with a large, heavy head and when shaken it cause subdural hemorrhages (bleeding in the brain) or retinal hemorrhages (bleeding in the retina).

Shaken Baby Syndrome Facts

This type of brain injury is most often seen in infants one year of age and under, with infants between the ages of two to four months being the highest risk. Although shaken baby syndrome does not typically occur in children over the age of two, even children who are as old as five or six can experience a traumatic brain injury if they experience extremely violent shaking. One of the most devastating facts about shaken baby syndrome is that it is often caused as a result of frustration. A parent or caregiver may think that a baby will stop crying if they shake it and/or they become frustrated with inability to cope with caring for the child, so they take their frustrations out on the child.

Statistics have indicated boys are shaken more often than girls and that as many as three-fourths of the people who have been found guilty of shaking a baby, are male and generally are in their twenties. Shaken baby syndrome can happen among families of any age composition, any ethnicity and in any income range. It is estimated that two to three babies out of 10,000 are the victims of shaken baby syndrome, approximately one in five of these children die and about one-third will survive without a severe disability.

How Does it Happen and What are the Consequences?

When an infant is violently shaken, it causes the brain to bounce back and forth and against the sides of the skull. As the brain is bouncing back and forth it causes the brain to swell, bleed and bruise. Shaking babies or toddlers causes extremely serious consequences, including:

  • Permanent brain damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Spinal cord and/or neck damages, which can lead to extensive motor dysfunctions, including paralysis
  • Speech and/or learning disorders, including the possibility of severe mental retardation
  • Death

Symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome

It is important to note that some of the symptoms as well as some of the consequences may not be immediately apparent and may not show up until several years after the incident. Symptoms may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Convulsions/seizures
  • Tremors
  • Inability to lift their head
  • Difficulties or inability focusing and/or following movement with their eyes
  • Extreme irritability
  • Poor appetite and/or feeding problems
  • Bruising, such as finger or hand marks on the chest and/or arms
  • Pale or bluish-colored skin
  • A soft spot on the head or forehead that seems to be bulging
  • The forehead appears larger than it usually is
  • Lethargy, which is lack of movement, the inability to stay awake and/or extreme tiredness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Coma

How is it Diagnosed?

In many situations a scan of the infants head reveals the damages. The most common types of tests include an x-ray, CAT scan or an MRI. Doctors will also look for evidence of retinal bleeding. Unfortunately, infants and small children are unable to tell the doctor and/or nurse what happened or what is hurting, so health care providers often have difficulties getting the truth about whether the injuries were caused by shaking or not. Many of the symptoms of shaken baby syndrome are also similar to other health problems, such as a virus.

Can Shaken Baby Syndrome Happen Accidentally?

No. The results of shaken baby syndrome are from deliberately and violently shaking the child back and forth. When parents normally interact with their child, such as bouncing on the leg, swinging the baby in a baby swing, jiggling in your arms are gently raising in the air will not cause a brain trauma.

Is it Treatable?

If it is suspected that a child may have been shaken or is showing symptoms of shaken baby syndrome, the child should be treated immediately. The parent or caregiver should also tell the doctor or nurse that the child has been shaken. The treatment depends on the severity, but may include surgery to stop the bleeding, respiratory support, physical support and a number of tests to determine the extent of the damage. Depending on the results of the injuries, the child may have to take medications for the remainder of their life, such as medications to reduce or prevent seizures.

Is it Preventable?

Yes. The one and only prevention is to never shake babies or children.

What are Some Things Parents/Caregivers can do When a Baby Cries?

When parents are honest about shaking babies, the primary reason given is because the baby was crying uncontrollably. There are several things you can do to avoid becoming frustrated, angry and shaking a baby, including:

  • The first thing is to make sure there isn’t anything wrong with the child. For example, check for a clean diaper and make sure the baby isn’t cold or hungry. Make sure the baby is not ill, such as having a fever or anything that could be causing pain.
  • If all of the baby’s needs are being met, try background noise, such as a CD player, radio or singing to the baby. Babies also are often soothed when they hear noises, such as a vacuum cleaner or fan.
  • If the weather is good, take the child for a walk or for a ride in the car.
  • A baby swing is often beneficial for calming a child.
  • Try a pacifier or a favorite toy
  • If possible, ask a friend or family member to sit with the child while you take a break.
  • If no one is available to sit with the child while you take a break, gently place the child in a crib, turn on soft music or a mobile and leave the room for five or ten minutes to calm down.

Why Babies Cry?

There is absolutely no way to get around; babies cry. It is how they communicate fear, hunger, pain, a need for sleep and much more. Although it may be tricky to figure out why your child is crying, is important to learn as much information as possible as to possible reasons why. Knowing the reasons a child may be crying, will help you find a solution to the problem. Here are some of the reasons babies cry and how you can soothe them:

  • Hunger-learning to recognize signs of hunger will help you begin feedings before the child gets to the crying stage. Some of the most common signs of hunger in an infant, include: smacking lips, rooting, putting their hands in their mouth and fussing.
  • Dirty diaper-it is common for babies to cry as soon as their diaper is soiled. An easy way to prevent crying from a dirty diaper is to frequently check the diaper. Checking the diaper about every two hours is usually sufficient.
  • Sleepy-it is common for babies who are sleepy to become fussy and/or start crying, especially when they are overly tired. Try rocking the child or reading a short story to relax them. Place the baby in the crib, turn off lights and play soft, soothing music.
  • Wants to be held-a baby needs a great deal of cuddling and they like to hear their parents voice, listen to their parents heartbeat and can often detect their parents unique smell. Holding your baby close and gently rubbing their head or cheek, will often help to calm them.
  • Needs to burp-babies often swallow air during feedings and if the air is not released, it causes discomfort. If your baby cries after feedings, try to get them to burp by gently placing the baby against you and alternate between lightly rubbing circles and patting the back.
  • Tummy problems-there are a number of things that can be causing your baby to have a tummy ache, such as gas or colic. If your baby has colic, he/she may continually cry for at least three hours a day, three days in a row and for several weeks. If a baby has gas, he/she will often become fussy and cry right after feedings. Talk with your pediatrician about using anti-gas drops made for babies.
  • Too hot or too cold-a newborn baby likes to be bundled, but not with a blanket that will be too warm. In most situations, if you are too cold or too warm, your baby may be as well. Touch the cheeks to feel for possible chilliness and cover with a warm, thin blanket.
  • Teething-cutting teeth is painful for babies. Babies vary on how they handle cutting teeth, but many are tearful, fussy and irritable. Try rubbing your finger over the gums to try and feel for a tooth coming in. Give the baby a teething ring to chew on and soothe irritated gums.
  • Not feeling well-if all of your baby’s needs have been met and he continues to cry, he may be coming down with something. Check the baby’s temperature and pay careful attention to the sound of the crying. In most situations a sick baby will cry differently from a baby that is hungry or sleepy. If you think the baby is coming down with something, call the pediatrician right away.

It is extremely important to remind yourself that your child is young, vulnerable and helpless. It is completely normal for babies to cry and it is common for the crying to become intense. Keep in mind that as time goes by, caring for your baby will get easier. As you become more familiar with your child, it will become easier to figure out why he/she is crying. If you feel at any time that you cannot control your anger or frustrations, call a relative or friend to come and stay with your baby for a little bit and go for a walk or take a warm bath to calm down. If there isn’t anyone you can call to come and help you, talk with a crisis counselor by calling the National Child Abuse Hot-line at 800-4-A-Child (800-422-4453) or contact a local crisis hot-line to talk with someone.

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