At some point, we’ve all been so frustrated with someone that we just want to grab them and shake them. It’s not necessarily a good idea to act on that impulse, but it probably won’t cause any lasting harm if the target is an adult. If it’s a baby, however, that’s a whole other story. That kind of jostling can actually cause permanent and even life-threatening brain damage: shaken baby syndrome.
What Is Shaken Baby Syndrome?
Shaken baby syndrome refers to a severe brain injury caused by physically shaking a baby. It may also be called shaken impact syndrome, whiplash shake syndrome, or abusive head trauma. Adults have fully-developed neck muscles, so they can support their heads when shaken. Babies, on the other hand, don’t have those developed muscles. They can’t stabilize their heads; when shaken, a baby’s brain will impact the inside of its skull. It’s like whiplash in adults, but it takes very little force to do it.
Our brains are fragile and impacts like that can destroy brain cells, bruise the brain, and cause swelling and bleeding. It’s usually the swelling and bleeding that cause the most severe damage, as they put pressure on the brain and deprive it of oxygen. Regardless of the specific cause, these injuries can be extremely severe, or even fatal.
Shaken Baby Syndrome Symptoms
So, how can you tell if your child has shaken baby syndrome? Some symptoms may be mild, like drowsiness, irritability, or decreased appetite. Others are more noticeable, including:
- dilated pupils
- convulsions or seizures
- breathing problems
- arched back
- cardiac arrest
- hearing or vision loss
The treatment for a shaken baby will depend on the severity of the symptoms. Your doctor will perform a physical exam to determine the extent of the damage. If you know that your baby was shaken, you should tell the doctor right away. Some of these symptoms have multiple potential causes and your doctor needs to take action as soon as possible to prevent further damage to your little one’s brain.
Your child’s doctor will perform a physical exam to search for bruises, retinal hemorrhages (bleeding of the blood vessels in the eyes), skull fractures, and other injuries that indicate that your child’s symptoms are the result of a brain injury. The doctor may also order a CT scan or, in some cases, an MRI, to get a clear image of the nature and extent of the injury.
Sometimes the shaken baby’s injuries are mild and you’ll just need to keep an eye out for continuing symptoms, which may indicate that there is a slow bleed in the brain. More serious injuries can affect your little one’s ability to breathe or maintain a steady blood pressure and heartbeat. In that case, your little one may need a ventilator or other support. In some cases, the baby will need emergency surgery to repair tears in the brain, relieve pressure caused by the swelling, or stop the bleeding.
In the long run, a child that suffers shaken baby syndrome may have lasting health problems. This kind of brain damage may cause vision or hearing loss, developmental or intellectual disabilities, coordination problems, seizures, cerebral palsy, behavioral problems, and other neurological effects. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this kind of brain damage. Treatment for any ongoing problems will focus on managing the symptoms and creating strategies for handling daily tasks.
Shaken baby syndrome is extremely serious and extremely dangerous – about 25% of victims do not survive and the majority of survivors have lifelong physical and/or mental impairments.
Protecting Your Child
Shaken baby syndrome is a form of physical abuse – it doesn’t happen naturally. Bouncing a child on your knee, hitting a speed bump, jogging with your baby, and falls off of the furniture don’t cause it. If your child is suffering these symptoms, it’s the result of abuse. It is NEVER safe under ANY CONDITIONS to shake a baby or toddler.
Men and women are equally likely to cause shaken baby syndrome. However, men generally cause more severe injuries, as they are usually larger and stronger. Some research suggests that fathers and mothers’ boyfriends are most likely to be the abusers on the male side, and babysitters and childcare providers are most likely on the female side. In general, the most common explanation for shaking the baby is that the perpetrator was trying to stop the baby from crying.
However, we don’t really know enough about this condition – there aren’t reliable measurements for the incidence of shaken baby syndrome or for the perpetrators. Many cases are written off as falls or other types of injuries and many victims don’t have external symptoms, making doctors more likely to attribute fussiness and other minor symptoms as the result of a bug or some other, less serious issue. In addition, many parents don’t know about or don’t report the abuse.
If your child is showing any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention right away. With any luck, it’s just a minor bug. But if shaken baby syndrome is the cause, your little one needs urgent medical attention. Most victims are under a year old, so bruising and other injuries are really rare without an outside cause and may indicate that your child has been abused.
If you suspect abuse, you should contact the police immediately and limit your child’s contact with anyone you may not entirely trust. If you know that someone has shaken your baby, alert the police and make sure that you and your child stay away from that person.
If you or your partner is struggling with anger management, consider seeking anger management counseling to help you through the stressful years of raising an infant. You can also reach out to friends and family to give you a break whenever you feel like you can’t take it anymore. Raising a baby is really hard and everyone needs a break sometimes – just be sure that you get one when you need it.