Shaken Baby Syndrome: What Causes It And How To Treat It

Shaken Baby Syndrome

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Babies cry a lot. But there are times when the wailing gets inexplicable, with almost no end to it. These tense moments push your patience to the limit and finally, you cave-in: you rattle the baby in frustration.

The action, often in vain, leads to a fatal condition called the shaken baby syndrome. The ailment is grim, but what precisely causes a shaken baby syndrome? Keep reading to learn all about it in MomJunction.

What Is Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is a condition where the infant suffers an inflicted head trauma due to violent shaking by a caretaker (parent, babysitter, etc.) (1). It is when someone holds the infant by the arms or shoulders and rattles the baby, making the head bob, or move forward and backward rapidly.

The violent jerk of the head resembles the “whiplash effect” and causes injury to the brain. The brain trauma is a direct result of the voluntary aggression of the caretaker.

Therefore, the shaken baby syndrome is categorized as a form of child abuse and is thus also called abusive head trauma (2).

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Are All Infants At Risk Of Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Yes. Infants of any age group can suffer from the shaken baby syndrome, but the one most susceptible are those below the age of one year, especially those below the age of six months.

[ Read: Gray Baby Syndrome Symptoms ]

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What Causes The Shaken Baby Syndrome?

The violent shaking of the baby and the underlying biomechanics are the primary cause of SBS.

Below, we explain why SBS is caused upon shaking the baby (3):

  • Babies have a softer brain tissue and the skull bones are not fused yet. The muscles of the neck are also not strong enough to absorb any sudden jerking movement of the head. It means babies are susceptible to brain injury from even a low-intensity, sudden movement of the head.
  • When the baby is shaken, the brain bounces inside the skull, hitting the inner wall of the skull. The part of the brain that bears the impact can get bruised and inflamed.
  • Blood vessels outside the brain may rupture due to impact and bleed within the skull.
  • Bleeding, along with injury, may even cause permanent damage to the brain. Functions controlled by the part of the damaged brain are most likely to be affected.
  • Babies can have SBS when they are shaken even while lying in the crib or when the head is rested on a soft material like a mattress. A few seconds of shaking can also cause head trauma in babies.

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What Does Not Cause Shaken Baby Syndrome?

The following activities, incidents, or scenarios do not lead to shaken baby syndrome:

  • Rocking or swaying the baby in your arms gently.
  • Bouncing the baby in your arms or on your legs.
  • Tossing the baby in the air.
  • Jogging, running, or walking quickly with your baby in your arms.
  • Accidental falls when the baby walks or a fall from furniture of low height.
  • Driving the baby in a car, on a bumpy road.
  • Vaccinating your baby.

Tossing your baby in the air and running around with the baby in the arms is undoubtedly dangerous.. Though they may not cause shaken baby syndrome, you must still avoid them.

Head trauma due to vaccination is impossible, and medical experts state that it is only a myth (4).

[ Read: Signs Of Marfan Syndrome In Babies ]

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What Are The Symptoms Of The Shaken Baby Syndrome?

The baby may not display any apparent symptoms that can be related to a head injury. Most symptoms occur spontaneously. Here are the external signs of a shaken baby syndrome (5):

  • An abrupt change in eating patterns. The baby will not feed or eat at the usual times. May also display loss of appetite.
  • Droopy eyes. It is often the result of injury to the eyeball due to violent movement in the eye socket (intraocular injury). Extreme cases may even cause loss of vision.
  • Changes in speech. Sudden onset of stuttering while talking.
  • Change in behavior; development of irritability, fussiness, and acute colic.
  • Could display lethargy and low energy levels.
  • May cry and touch the head several times due to pain. Older toddlers may even point to the head to indicate pain in their area.
  • Diminished hearing abilities and loss of hearing in severe cases.

When to rush to the doctor?

The following symptoms of head trauma occur due to a severely violent shaking of the baby:

  • Seizures and convulsions
  • Bleeding from nose or the eye socket, also called retinal hemorrhage
  • Chronic vomiting
  • Semi-consciousness or repeated loss of consciousness
  • Stops eating entirely
  • Bluish or pale skin especially around the face and the head
  • Shows swelling on the fontanelle (soft spot on top of the head)
  • Displays developmental delay or regresses, which is losing the existing skills

The long-term effects or prognosis of the shaken baby syndrome include physical and cognitive disabilities. Other problems include impaired brain functions, sensory functions, and even neurological disorders like cerebral palsy.

It is difficult to diagnose abusive head trauma only through the symptoms accurately.

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How Is Shaken Baby Syndrome Diagnosed?

Mild symptoms of change in feeding patterns or behavioral change are not immediately attributable to the shaken baby syndrome.

Other symptoms like fussiness and lethargy may go away on their own. More severe indicators such as inflammation, seizures, and bleeding may make the doctor suspect SBS.

The doctor will rely on X-rays, computed tomography scan (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect a fracture and damage to the brain tissue.

[ Read: What Causes Down Syndrome In Babies ]

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Is Shaken Baby Syndrome Treatable?

Treatment entirely depends on the extent of the brain damage. In several cases, the damage is reversed due to the brain’s ability to regenerate damaged nerve cells. Even in such cases, the baby’s abilities and skills could be impacted.

The following course of treatment can help improve the baby’s condition (7):

  1. Treating the damage: If the baby has external bleeding or inflammation, then the doctor would treat using relevant medications. External dressing and antibiotic dosage to prevent infection can help prevent complications of head trauma. In worst cases, surgery could be required to contain the bleeding.
  1. Rehabilitation therapy: A growing baby runs the risk of losing skills or suffering developmental delays due to brain injury. Training through a certified baby therapist can restore lost skills and also prevent loss of existing ones. Use of rehabilitation tools and techniques can help the baby recuperate faster.

Therapy is a long-term effort, the duration of which the baby’s doctor will determine depending on the extent of damage caused by SBS.

Nearly 80% of babies who suffer abusive head trauma suffer disabilities for the rest of their lives. About 25% of cases result in the death of the infant either immediately or a while after the incident (6).

Therefore, you need to prevent SBS. Find out more about it next.

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How To Prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome?

To prevent shaken baby syndrome, you have to avoid shaking the baby. And the only way to do it is to control your emotions and be careful with whom you leave the baby. Here is what you can do (8):

  1. Take breaks when the baby gets cranky: There is going to be a lot of crying in your baby’s early months, and sometimes nothing, just nothing, will calm the baby down. During such moments, when your patience is tested, leave the baby in the hands of a reliable family member and take a break. If no one is around, place the infant in a crib, and leave the room for 5-10 minutes. Do not return until you are calm enough to handle the baby. Giving yourself some cool-off time significantly reduces the risk of the shaken baby syndrome.
  1. Call a friend, relative or a helpline when frustrated: Request a relative, such as the baby’s grandparents or aunts or a good friend, to drop by. The presence of another person can give you the needed moral support and help you deal with a cranky baby. If you have no one to call, then consider calling a helpline that supports parents in stressful situations.
  1. Hire a licensed babysitter: Remember, even a frustrated babysitter can act in a way that causes head trauma to the baby. Always leave the baby in the company of a reliable and licensed babysitter. If you cannot get a babysitter, leave the baby with a friend or relative who does not have any temper issues.
  1. Choose a licensed daycare center: Choose a daycare center with a good track record and with trained staff who can manage a baby’s tantrums.
  1. Focus on the positive aspects of parenting: You will face several difficult situations due to your baby’s colic or outright stubbornness. But this is when you need to be balanced and show your maturity. Remember about the numerous occasions when your baby gave you immense joy and satisfaction. Spend your energy on nurturing these thoughts and focusing on things that make you happy about having a baby. It all leads to positive parenting.

[ Read: Turner Syndrome Symptoms In Babies ]

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SBS is preventable with some extra patience. It is true that babies are difficult to handle and being a parent is perhaps the toughest role in life. But your shaking and rattling will not help.

Therefore, the next time you feel your patience depleting, remember that this phase will pass. Babies do not stay little forever. Your infant will grow in no time, and when you look back, you will have only sweet memories left.

Do you have any tips to handle a crying baby and prevent SBS? Share them in our comments section.

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