Shaken Baby Syndrome

Shaken baby syndrome can occur in children up to 5 years of age but is most common in children under 1 year. It is a brain injury that occurs when a baby is shaken violently.

Studies of normal and healthy infants have demonstrated that the number of minutes per day spent crying increases weekly during the first two months of life, stabilizes for three to four weeks, and then drops remarkably. This mixture of physical and emotional parental exhaustion, coupled with what seems to be never-ending crying, can push many over the edge.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that, while the duration of shaking necessary to inflict such substantial trauma may be accomplished in 15-20 seconds, adult strength is necessary to inflict such damage

Doctors refer to shaken baby syndrome as “abusive head trauma” or intentional head injury.

What causes brain injury?

When a baby is shaken, their head whips back and forth causing tears in blood vessels, brain tissue and nerves. This causes the baby’s brain to slam against the skull repeatedly causing swelling and bleeding in the brain.

Babies have;

  • Large heads compared to their bodies
  • Weak neck muscles
  • Delicate blood vessels in the brain

Those most likely adult to inflict trauma on an infant tends to be the father (50%), stepfather, male partner of the mother (20%), female babysitters (17%), and the mother (12%)

What are the symptoms?

Depending on how old your child is, how often they have been abused, duration of each abuse and the force used, the symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Mild symptoms

  1. No hunger
  2. Vomiting
  3. Fussy and sluggish
  4. Irritability
  5. High pitched cry
  6. Poor suck and swallow coordination

Severe symptoms

  1. Trouble hearing
  2. Seizures
  3. Slow heartbeat
  4. Inability to focus eyes
  5. Bleeding in the eyes
  6. Clear fluid (spinal fluid) draining from nose or ear canal

If the child is badly injured, you will notice the symptoms will start soon after the abuse; other children may take a few days to show symptoms as the brain swells over time.

Caregivers usually put the injured child to bed hoping the symptoms will get better. This may cause more harm and in some cases result in a coma

20 to 50% of babies diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome usually have evidence of other trauma such as broken bones, bruising and even intentional burns.

Risk factors for shaken baby syndrome

  • Low education
  • Young single parents
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Domestic violence in the home
  • Financial, housing or food stresses
  • Mental illness or postpartum depression
  • Limited or no support from relatives, church members and even friends
  • Colicky infants
  • Unwanted pregnancy

How is shaken baby syndrome diagnosed?

There are no clear signs of abuse when it comes to shaken baby syndrome. The symptoms are also vague such as vomiting and fussiness are normal in babies.

Shaken baby syndrome unfortunately is very hard to discover until the abuse causes severe harm

To confirm shaken baby syndrome, the doctor;

  • Will ask about your child’s medical history
  • Do a physical exam looking for injuries
  • Do imaging tests to look for brain injury

Doctors usually do other tests to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms the child is exhibiting.

How is it treated?

A child abused in this way needs to be in hospital. Medicine is usually given to ease brain swelling .

A child with bleeding in the brain will require surgery. Physical therapy and seizure medicine may also be necessary

What should i expect long term?

Brain damage causes several issues that may have long term effects;

  • Seizures
  • Some babies are unable to control their muscle movement
  • Blindness or trouble seeing
  • Trouble hearing or deafness
  • Muscle stiffness or cerebral palsy
  • Intellectual difficulties that may affect the child’s ability to care for themselves in the future
  • Learning disabilities
  • Emotional or behavioral problems
  • Some children have died from their injuries

If i suspect shaken baby syndrome, what should i do?

A head injury in a child can be dangerous. if something doesn’t seem right with your child;

Call emergency services immediately if:

  • your child has a seizure
  • is unconscious
  • has trouble breathing

if you suspect abuse but your child is not in immediate danger, call the police or child protective services, never confront the suspected abuser alone.

Expectant mothers need to be counseled on management strategies for themselves and the child. Incessant crying is the leading cause of frustration in care givers. ask for help if you find yourself at the end of your rope.


Do you know any victims of shaken baby syndrome?


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