What Really Happens to a Shaken Baby

News segments have covered stories of infants severly injured or killed by their caregivers after being shaken. In fact, if you do a news search on any search engine, right now, someone somewhere is on trial for shaking a baby and causing injury. Abusive Head Trauma, or Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), is something most of us have heard of. But, what is it?

Shaken Baby Syndrome is a form of child abuse in which a child is violently shaken. It results in damage to the brain. It can occur after as few as five seconds of shaking and is typically seen in children younger than 2 years of age, but can be seen up to age 5.

Babies have large, heavy heads and relatively weak neck muscles (which is why doctors tell us to support the head when we hold infants). Their brains are immature, therefore more susceptible to injury and the blood vessels surrounding the brain are more susceptible to tearing.

When a baby is shaken, the to and fro motion causes the head to flop forward and backward. The brain rotates inside the skull, damaging brain tissue. Blood vessels surrounding the brain may tear causing bleeding in the head. Blood buildup causes increased pressure in the skull, which leads to more brain damage. Additionally, the baby’s head may hit an object during the shaking incident, causing further injury (even if the object is soft, like a mattress or pillow).

The number one reason cited for a baby being shaken by caregivers is that the baby was crying. While that may seem obvious, that babies cry, the resulting frustration from being unable to soothe the baby leads these caregivers to shake the infant. Other triggers cited include toileting or feeding issues that have led to the caregivers’ frustration or anger.

Review of identified cases of SBS reveal that 60% of the victims are male, and children of families who live at or below the poverty level are at an increased risk for these injuries as well as any type of child abuse. Perpetrators in 65% to 90% of cases are males — usually either the baby’s father or the mother’s boyfriend, often in his early twenties.

Symptoms of SBS include convulsions, loss of consciousness, extreme irritability or other changes in behavior, sleepiness, not smiling, loss of vision, no breathing, pale or bluish skin, poor feeding, lack of appetite and vomiting.

The consequences for the child with Shaken Baby Syndrome are extensive and can include:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Physical disabilities
  • Visual disabilities or blindness
  • Hearing impairment
  • Speech disabilities
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Seizures
  • Behavior disorders
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Death

Only 30% of documented cases recovered fully following the incident.

Prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome:
•NEVER shake a baby or child in play or in anger. Even gentle shaking can become violent shaking when you are angry.
•Do not hold your baby during an argument.
•If you find yourself becoming annoyed or angry with your baby, put him in the crib and leave the room. Try to calm down. Call someone for support.
•Call a friend or relative to come and stay with the child if you feel out of control.
•Contact a local crisis hotline or child abuse hotline for help and guidance.
•Seek the help of a counselor and attend parenting classes.
•Do not ignore the signs if you suspect child abuse in your home or in the home of someone you know.

Prevention of Shaken Baby Syndrome is the responsibility of us all. National agencies should share the information given here, particularly to those most at risk of conducting this abuse. Daycare and preschool workers should also be made aware. This is an unfortunate occurrence, but with knowledge comes power.

Read More: Psychological Response to a Baby’s Cry
The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome
Safety & Prevention: Shaken Baby Syndrome

Image: Clare Bloomfield / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About Traci S. Williams-Nurse

Dr. Traci Williams-Nurse is a licensed psychologist who specialized in child, adolescent and family psychology. Her interests include child development, family functioning, video games and food. She was born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
This entry was posted in Abuse, Infant/Toddler Mental Health, Parenting and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What Really Happens to a Shaken Baby

  1. Ashley says:

    Working in the health care field you need to be aware of SBS. There are a few children who I work with that are there because they were developing typically and then had a incident of abuse by a parent or caregiver. It is sad because the child does not deserve it and they become helpless. There is one case that is being investigated because a mother blamed the babysitter but it is believed to possibly be the mother.

    One thing that is important to know that is not on here is that after a child experiences an injury associated with shaken baby syndrome the symptoms may not be immediately noticeable. The symptoms are caused by the developing increased pressure within the brain (intracranial pressure) caused by brain hemorrhages and swelling which takes time to show.

  2. Traci says:

    That’s a really good point. Just as with a traumatic brain injury, we may not see the effect immediately.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. Melisa says:

    Now that we know the symptoms caused by a shaking, how is it that we know for sure that a baby was shaken and hasn’t gotten injury by a fall or something else? Is it that an x tray of some sort that needs to be taken such as Cat/ MRI?

  4. If a child displays the symptoms above, their caregiver should seek immediate medical attention. Whether or not it was caused by SBS, a fall or other incident, the child should be checked for injury. Even falls can have deleterious, chronic effects, dependent on the extent of insult to the body.
    The medical team will decide if it is necessary to do imaging studies. The effects of brain damage are less detectable with X-Ray.
    Combining the findings of a medical exam with the report of what happened, as well as a history of the child’s home environment, etc., a diagnosis of SBS may be determined.
    For more on the clinical presentation of SBS, see here: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/515880_4

  5. justin michael foss says:

    our baby has a rash type chafed skin on his face and his back its on his legs in all actuality we asked the doctor to look and he never did cause he obviously does not care but we feel like its not right at all to have this he might just have extremely sensitive skin if there is anything you can tell us or help out with home remedies or something along that nature would be great we have been trying this extra sensitive skin lotion but its not really working it comes back within a few days or when he rubs his blanket on his face it might be the laundry detergent also we need to get another doctor or something cause this is ridiculous we think also we have been trying to cut back on his eating habits a lil bit but he needs his nutrients for his health but he is eating an exceptional amount of formula and is still fussy and angry cause its like hes not getting enough we tried the cereal in the formula we started with rice cereal like we was told by my old pediatrician when i was a child we just dont know what to do he is an extremely healthy and happy baby but we think something is wrong or he is just going to be a big ole boy lol if you could email us back as soon as possible it would be greatly appreciated thank you. send an email or reply to the email address

  6. justin michael foss says:

    also we have a two year old that is exceptionally bad he does not like to listen hes always on the go and into things. we have tried everything taking away tv time spankings time out corner time early bed times yelling i mean everything its like he just doesnt hear us at all its like he has a learning disorder or adhd and he knows better its just like he doesnt really hear us or he ignores us like adhd like i said he is always on the go constantly and we cant get him checked for adhd until he is five we need to do something about this asap cause he has been stressing us out incredibly bad and it is causing us to fight and bicker all the time hear recently and we have never really been like this until the stress of him acting like this weve tried putting things up he still finds a way to get to them we have literally baby proofed the whole house now and he is still finding ways to do the same stuff all over again like just today he found a marker i dont know how but he did while we was waking up and wrote all over everything and i mean everything like the couch the love seat the chair the washer and dryer the wall and the new flat screen tv oh yeah the tv it was bad lol in all the chaos he still found another pen and started marking all over again its like he stashes them somewhere lol jk but he did this last week as well and he got a two min time out in his time out chair he cried and wined like he always does but we sat down in front of him and told him thats a no no and he still does this stuff we dont know what to do if there is anything anybody can tell us please email us asap its getting worse day by day and its causing us more and more problems that we dont need in our relationship here is my email address hustlasambition@live.com

  7. As I am not a doctor, all concerns should be directed to your kids’ pediatrician. Thanks for reading!

  8. Pingback: Top 10 Most Popular Blog Posts | Child Space

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