Shaken baby syndrome

Taking care of a fussy baby, or a baby who cries and cannot be consoled, is very, very stressful. Sometimes, usually out of frustration, a caregiver will shake the baby forcefully, in an attempt to make him stop crying. Never shake a baby because his tiny, fragile brain may be damaged.

It takes only a few seconds of shaking to cause irreversible brain damage in an infant. Further damage can occur if the shaking ends with the baby hitting something, like a wall or mattress. When a baby is shaken to the point where his brain is damaged, it is called shaken baby syndrome (SBS) or shaken impact syndrome.

SBS is the leading cause of death in child abuse cases in the United States. The average age of the victims is between 3 and 8 months. In most cases, the person who injures the baby is a young male in his early 20s. He often is the baby’s father or the mother’s boyfriend.

When a baby is shaken forcefully, the brain strikes the inside of the skull. This causes blood vessels and nerves to burst and the brain tissue to tear. Afterwards, the brain swells, causing more pressure and more damage. About half the babies who have SBS die.
Children who survive may suffer:
  • Partial or total blindness
  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures
  • Developmental delays
  • Learning problems
  • Paralysis
  • Intellectual disabilities

In mild cases, the baby may appear normal after the shaking. But over time, he may develop one or more of the problems listed above. Often a problem is first noticed when the child goes to school and has trouble learning or behaving.

SBC can be totally prevented, especially when parents recognize when they are frustrated and get help to reduce stress.

If your baby won’t stop crying, our article Crying and Fussiness provides helpful tips.

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