Shaken Baby Syndrome

HealthLinkBC File Number: 
86
Last Updated: 
November 2015

What is Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Shaken baby syndrome is brain injury that occurs when someone shakes a baby or throws a baby against an object. It is a form of child abuse. It may happen to children up to 5 years of age, but it is most common in babies younger than 1 year old.

It is never okay to shake or throw a young child. It may not leave any obvious sign of injury, but it can cause serious long-term problems or even death.

A baby’s head is heavy and large compared to the rest of the body and its neck muscles are not strong enough to support the weight of the head. Shaking can cause damage to the brain cells leading to permanent brain damage. It can also tear blood vessels inside the baby’s head and cause bleeding in the brain. Even minor injuries to a baby’s brain can cause lifelong problems.

Shaken baby injuries often happen because a parent, or someone else looking after a baby, gets frustrated with the baby’s crying and temporarily loses control and violently shakes the baby.

These kinds of injuries do not occur in regular interactions when playing gently with a baby.

For example, gently bouncing an infant on your knee does not cause shaken baby syndrome.

What damage can shaking or throwing a baby cause?

Shaking a baby can cause:

  • seizures;
  • blindness or deafness;
  • paralysis;
  • permanent brain damage;
  • death.

How can I protect my baby?

If your baby’s crying is frustrating you, take a break. Gently place your baby in a safe place and leave the room. Take 10 to 15 minutes to give yourself a chance to calm down. It is more important to calm yourself before you try to calm your baby.

Talk to others who care for your baby such as babysitters, relatives, and friends about how to safely care for your baby. Make sure they understand that it is more important for the caregiver to be calm than to stop your baby from crying. Let them know that you will be happy to come and get the baby if the crying is too much for them.

Why do babies cry?

Sometimes it is easy to figure out why a baby is crying; sometimes it is not so easy.

Crying is normal, and some babies cry more than others. Babies can cry because they are hungry, uncomfortable, sick, hurt or they want to be held. It is normal for a baby who is otherwise healthy to cry a lot for their first few months, sometimes even for many hours a day. At times, this crying may be unsoothable, even when the baby is completely fine and healthy. This behaviour usually ends by about 3 to 5 months of age.

If the crying is constant or louder than usual, or the baby has a fever or is vomiting, or if you have concerns that something is wrong, take the baby to the hospital or health clinic.

Crying does not mean your baby is being bad or that your baby is mad at you. It does not mean that you are a bad parent. Crying is an annoying sound; it is supposed to be. If it was a pleasant sound, crying would be easy to ignore and the baby’s needs would not be met. Listening to your baby cry can be heart-wrenching. It is helpful to know that a period of more intense crying in the early months is a normal developmental stage that babies go through.

The most important thing to remember is that you and your baby will get through this crying stage and smiles and laughter will replace the crying. It can be difficult sometimes, but the best thing to do is to stay calm and take time out when you need it.

What can you do when your baby won’t stop crying?

There is no magic answer that works all of the time with every baby. You may have to try several things before you find out what works best for you when soothing your baby. You may find that what works today may not work tomorrow. You may want to increase the comforting and soothing responses that you normally do. Sometimes nothing you do will stop the crying, and that’s okay.

Here are some suggestions that may help comfort your baby:

  • Snuggle the baby close to your chest; your heartbeat may comfort the baby.
  • Let your baby’s cues guide when they want to feed. Follow your baby’s early cues for hunger. For the first few months of life, babies usually feed every 2 to 3 hours or at least 8 times in 24 hours.
  • Check your baby’s diaper. Keep your baby clean and dry.
  • Wrap the baby in a soft blanket.
    • Keep your baby warm and comfortable—but not too hot.
    • Do not put your baby in crib or bassinette wrapped in a blanket.
  • Provide some soft music or other relaxing sounds.
    • Try humming or singing a lullaby.
    • Sometimes, the sound of the vacuum cleaner, clothes dryer, fish tank filter or dishwasher helps calm a baby.
  • Offer a soother or teething ring.
  • Offer a favourite blanket or soft toy while cuddling the baby.
  • Provide gentle motion.
    • Walk with or rock the baby. You may want to put your baby in a infant carrier if you have one, and walk around the house.
    • Try a baby swing if you have one.
    • Take the baby for a walk in a stroller.
    • Some babies like to go for a car ride. Be sure the baby is safely secured in an infant car seat.

Remember, these things work sometimes and sometimes they will not work at all. It is worth trying these suggestions but try not to blame yourself or get frustrated with your baby if they do not work. Crying that does not respond to soothing is a normal stage that does come to an end, usually by 5 months.

What else can you do if comforting your baby doesn’t stop them from crying?

Find someone to help you. Call a friend or relative you can trust. It is important to get away from the baby if you think you might lose control. It is just as important to be sure that the baby will be safe while you are gone.

Remember that it’s okay to ask for help. The following people may be able to help:

  • family
  • friends
  • your child’s health care provider
  • parent groups
  • your public health nurse, or

You can also call 8-1-1 to speak with a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or you can call your local hospital or health clinic for other contacts in your community.

Remember—never shake a baby!

Babies have weak neck muscles and heavy heads, so even a few seconds of hard shaking can cause serious damage to babies and small children.

For More Information

For more information on ways to comfort your baby, review the Period of PURPLE Crying® program materials that you received at the hospital. For mothers that did not give birth at a hospital in British Columbia, you will receive the DVD/booklet package from your public health centre or nurse.

For more tips and resources in your community, visit the Period of Purple Crying® at www.purplecrying.info.

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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