What is Shaken Baby Syndrome?

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  • Written By: O. Wallace
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2018
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Shaken baby syndrome (SBS), which falls under a group of injuries called shaken baby or shaken baby impact, occurs when head trauma is inflicted on a young child, usually by an abusive caretaker. SBS is caused by shaking a baby forcefully, causing injury to the head, spine, neck and brain. Children younger than one are at particular risk because of their anatomy at this stage. Their neck muscles are not yet developed enough to protect them. SBS most often occurs in babies aged three to eight months, but it can also affect kids up to age five.

SBS often happens when, in a moment of extreme frustration, the caretaker or parent lashes out in violence at a baby who may have been crying for a long period of time. Statistics show that approximately 65 to 90% of these abusers are males in their early twenties, and kids who are most affected typically live below the poverty line. SBS is often known as the “silent epidemic,” because abusers don’t often admit to injuring the child, and babies cannot relate what happened to them.

Due to the violent back and forth action of shaking, the baby’s brain is thrown about within the skull, tearing brain tissue, blood vessels and nerves. When the brain is bashed against the skull, it causes trauma and bleeding. Often, the injury of SBS is compounded when the abuser inflicts additional trauma by ending the shaking episode with an impact into a wall or floor.


Children who survive the devastating trauma of SBS are most likely to suffer life-long debilitating injuries. Some of these side effects are not initially apparent, but instead, they develop over subsequent years. At worst, the child may suffer severe mental retardation or cerebral palsy. Blindness, either complete or partial, may be another result, as well as loss of hearing and delays in development. Children with SBS may also have learning and speech disabilities, as well as memory and attention issues. Some children may experience some paralysis as well.

Children who suffer milder injuries with SBS may experience other symptoms, which can be so general that it is hard for doctors to pinpoint SBS as the cause. These include general indolence, vomiting, irritability and reduced appetite. The baby may also stop smiling or babbling. These children may have seizures, breathing problems, unequal pupils, an inability to focus on or track objects and an inability to lift the head.

Certain physical injuries can lead a doctor to consider SBS as a diagnosis. These types of injuries are usually not common with accidental injuries. With SBS, the retinas will show signs of bleeding, or hemorrhaging, the skull may be fractured and the brain may swell. There is often bleeding into the brain, causing dangerous pressure. The child’s arms and legs may also be fractured, and there are usually bruises on the body.

There have been many recent informational campaigns by several governmental agencies designed to educate parents and caregivers about how to effectively soothe babies to avoid this stressful situation. Parents and caregivers can also learn to deal with the stress of a colicky baby by asking for help, walking away or distracting themselves with music.



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