7 Signs Of Shaken Baby Syndrome, Causes & Treatment

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The shaken baby syndrome is a kind of brain injury that happens due to violently shaking an infant. Babies cry very frequently, and at times, this continuous crying might get on a caretaker’s nerves. They might end up shaking the baby vigorously out of frustration.

Since babies have soft brains and sensitive neck muscles, vigorous shaking might damage their brains. If not treated at the earliest, it might cause shaking injuries like permanent brain damage and increase the chances of mortality.

Read on to know more about shaken baby syndrome and ways to deal with it.

In This Article

What Is Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Shaking baby may cause injury
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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 effectiXInjury caused by the sudden, violent, and forceful movement of the head. ” 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).

SBS is always preventable. It is abuse and should never happen.

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In the US, at least one of every four babies who are violently shaken succumbs to this form of child abuse (13).

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.

protip_icon Quick fact
According to CDC, babies from two to four months of age are at greatest risk of adverse outcomes from shaking. However, injuries have been reported up to five years of age (13).

There are some risk factors where these cases occur more often:

Infant factors

  • PerinataliXPeriod before and after the birth of a child. illness like prematurity or major birth defects
  • Incessant crying is a common trigger, so “colicky” babies are higher risk

Family risk factors

  • Familial dysfunction like drug or alcohol abuse or a psychiatric illness in young mothers
  • Family disruption and separation
  • Prior history of abuse in the family
  • Economic factors can also play a role

What Causes The Shaken Baby Syndrome?

The violent shaking of the baby and the underlying biomechanicsiXThe study of the movement of a living body. 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 and may also lead to intracranial Hemorrhage.
Baby's brain bounces inside the skull when shaken
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  • 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 resting on a soft material like a mattress. A few seconds of shaking can also cause head trauma in babies.

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).

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.
  • Speech impairment or changes in speech. Sudden onset of stuttering while talking.
  • 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.
Older toddlers may point to the head to indicate pain
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  • Diminished hearing abilities and hearing loss in severe cases.
  • Also look for signs of trauma to the rest of the body – bruises/bleeds.

Sierra Cooke, a blogger and a mum to a baby who suffered Shaken Baby Syndrome, shares what she encountered, “Our daughter Christa, the symptoms she showed was that she wouldn’t take a bottle at 3 months, she wouldn’t wake up and she had seizures (ⅰ).’’

protip_icon Quick fact
Vomiting, seizures, inconsolable crying, irritability, and changed sleeping patterns may be exhibited in babies affected by a less severe form of SBS (13).

When to rush to the doctor?

At any point if abuse is suspected by any caregiver, then the baby should be seen by the medical care provider and they need to be informed of the suspicion. Even in the presence of minimal signs or symptoms – if any abuse is suspected then it must be reported. It can be reported to the doctor, a social worker or the police.

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 palsyiXDisability due to brain damage affecting movement, posture, and coordination. .

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

How Is Shaken Baby Syndrome Diagnosed?

Doctor will check for any brain damage in baby
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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 scans (CT scans), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect a skull fracture or damage to the brain tissue.

The doctor will also examine and X-ray other body parts to rule out other injuries.

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 (6):

  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 infant 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 (7).

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

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.
Request help from your friends or relatives
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  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.

SBS is always 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.

If you feel overwhelmed then get help – one desperate moment of lost control can be life altering. All parents get frustrated, tired and emotionally drained with a new baby. Ask for help if you need it.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What conditions may be caused by shaken baby syndrome?

The following conditions may be caused by shaken baby syndrome (9):

  • Subdural hematoma (collection of blood between the surface of the brain and the outer membrane surrounding it)
  • Subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding between the arachnoidiXDelicate membrane surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. and the brain)
  • Retinal hemorrhage
  • Breakage of the nerve cells in the brain
  • Fractures to other body parts

2. How long does it take for the symptoms of shaken baby syndrome to manifest?

The symptoms of shaken baby syndrome may be seen immediately after shaking the baby. They usually peak within four to six hours (9).

3. Can shaken baby syndrome be diagnosed later in life?

Yes. While some symptoms of shaken baby syndrome appear immediately, others, such as attention and behavioral disorders, may be diagnosed later in life (10).

4. What is the triad for shaken baby syndrome?

Retinal bleeding, subdural hemorrhage, and Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy are the diagnostic clinical triad for shaken baby syndrome (11).

5. How common is shaken baby syndrome?

The incidence of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is uncertain because there are no dependable ways to gather data on this problem. The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome estimates that there are 600 to 1,400 cases annually in the United States. Although the precise figure is unclear, this abusive head trauma sadly stands as the primary cause of death and lasting disability for infants and young children experiencing child abuse (12).

Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) may occur due to sudden rattling of the baby when held by the arms or shoulders. As babies have an immature skull and brain, it may cause brain injury resulting in impaired brain functions and physical and cognitive impairments. Babies below six months, “colicky” babies, or those with major congenital disabilities are susceptible to SBS, which is considered a form of child abuse. Lethargy, irritability, and sudden appetite changes may indicate mild damage, while seizures, bleeding, or chronic vomiting may occur in severe cases. Seek immediate medical help if you observe any such changes in your baby.

Infographic: What Are The Long-Term Effects Of Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Brain injuries due to shaken baby syndrome can significantly impact a baby’s normal brain development. Some children with severe injuries may require special education and care for the rest of their lives. Check out the infographic to know the long-term effects of shaken baby syndrome.

effects of shaken baby syndrome (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Get the high-quality PDF version of this infographic.

Download Infographic in PDF version

Key Pointers

  • Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) occurs when a baby under one is violently shaken, causing injuries to the delicate neck and brain muscles due to the whiplash effect of head bobbing.
  • Bleeding within the brain from ruptured blood vessels in the bruised regions and inflammation may cause functional disruption in the baby’s brain due to SBS.
  • Rocking, bouncing, gentle air tosses, accidental falls, and vaccination do not cause SBS. However, tossing the baby may lead to other injuries resulting from a fall.
  • Symptoms of SBS may include changes in eating patterns, droopy eyes, changes in speech, irritability, lethargy, and crying due to head pain.
  • Proper handling of the baby, timely diagnosis, and proper treatment may be effective in preventing permanent disabilities and reducing the risk of mortality from abusive head trauma.
shaken baby syndrome_illustration

Image: Dall·E/MomJunction Design Team

Shaken Baby Syndrome is a serious and preventable form of child abuse. Learn how to recognize and prevent it through this informative video.

Personal Experience: Source


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
    1. Shaken baby syndrome.
    2. Abusive Head Trauma (Shaken baby syndrome).
    3. Shaken baby syndrome.
    4. Vaccines and shaken baby syndrome.
    5. Shaken baby syndrome: a preventable tragedy.
    6. Shaken baby syndrome.
    7. Learn More.
    8. Preventing Abusive head trauma.
    9. Shaken Baby Syndrome.
    10. Shaken Baby Syndrome.
    11. M De Leeuw and W Jacobs; (2007); Shaken baby syndrome: the classical clinical triad is still valid in recent court rulings.
    12. Shaken Baby Syndrome – Symptoms, Prognosis, and Prevention.
    13. A Journalist’s Guide to Shaken Baby Syndrome.
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