Why can it occur?
One day, you’re visiting a friend and notice that her newborn baby is having trouble staying awake and seems to be easily irritated. You ask your friend if everything is okay. She says that it is, and the baby has been only acting this way since yesterday after her boyfriend babysat. You’re concerned that something is wrong with the baby and encourage your friend to have him checked out. What could be wrong? Will the baby get better?
Shaken baby syndrome is when an infant or toddler has a severe brain injury due to being forcefully shaken. This is why it’s also known as abusive head trauma, shaken impact syndrome, inflicted head injury, or whiplash shake syndrome. Young children have weak neck muscles and a large, heavy head. If they’re forcefully shaken, it causes their brain to move back and forth within their skull. The outcome is bruising, swelling, and bleeding that puts pressure on the brain, causing it not to receive enough oxygen leading to brain damage or death. This often occurs when a caregiver severely shakes a baby out of frustration or anger (generally because the child won’t stop crying). It’s important to note that bouncing a child on your knee, minor falls, or rough play aren’t usually strong enough to cause shaken baby syndrome.
Afterward, the child might not seem like they’ve got an injury because you don’t initially see any physical changes. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have bleeding in the brain/eyes, spinal cord damage, or broken bones. Indications that something is wrong include symptoms like extreme fussiness/irritability, difficulty staying awake, breathing problems, poor eating, vomiting, pale/bluish skin, seizures, paralysis, coma, or death. In mild cases, the child will appear normal but can later develop health or behavioral problems. Many children with shaken baby syndrome show signs of prior child abuse. If a child has any signs of abuse, they should be seen by a doctor immediately. Healthcare providers are legally required to report any cases of suspected abuse to authorities.
Complications of shaken baby syndrome are lifelong and require ongoing medical care. Some examples are partial/total blindness, intellectual disability, developmental delays, behavior issues, seizure disorders, and cerebral palsy. Certain factors can result in the likelihood of a parent or caregiver forcefully shaking a baby, such as unrealistic expectations of babies, young/single parent, stress, domestic violence, alcohol/substance abuse, unstable family situations, depression, a history of mistreatment as a child, or being male.
The treatment for shaken baby syndrome is usually emergent because medical personnel need to limit the damage from any swelling or bleeding. Typically, this involves some form of surgery, like brain or eye surgery. If the child is having seizures, they’ll need medicine to stop/prevent further ones from occurring. Often, these babies need to have breathing support because the pressure within the skull alters the brain stem (the part of the brain that controls our breathing and heart rate) causing it not to function correctly.
Shaken baby syndrome can be prevented. If your baby won’t stop crying, you might be willing to try anything to get them to stop. However, shaking them isn’t the answer. A great tool to help you avoid doing this is attending a new parent education class. During the class, you’ll learn the dangers of shaking, tips on how to soothe a crying baby, and ways to manage your stress. If you’re having difficulty managing your emotions/stress, seek professional help. It’s important to educate other caregivers on the dangers of shaken baby syndrome. As a parent, it’s your job to protect your child, even when it’s challenging and frustrating. So, instead of shaking your baby, take a pause and call for help.
Shaking a baby can have grave, lifelong consequences. The good news is that it’s preventable. If you have any questions or concerns about shaken baby syndrome, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome at https://www.dontshake.org/