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Shaken baby syndrome is a group of symptoms in babies or small children. The symptoms are caused by injuries from a violent shaking or hit to the head. They may be temporary problems, severe disabilities, or death. The severity of the symptoms will depend on the type of injuries to the baby's brain.
Shaken baby syndrome is caused by shaking or jerking a baby or young child. Even a few seconds of shaking can injure a baby. Babies and young children are more vulnerable to injuries from this type of movement because:
Shaken baby syndrome usually happens when a parent or other caregiver becomes angry or frustrated. It often happens because the baby will not stop crying.
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Boys are more likely to be abused in this way than girls. Other factors that may increase the chance of a shaking injury include a family history of:
Symptoms can vary based on the severity of the injury. The injury depends on the length of time the baby is shaken or how hard the baby's head has hit a surface. Injuries caused by shaking are often extremely serious and can include:
These are serious symptoms. If your baby has any of the above symptoms, then go to the emergency room right away.
There are not always bruises or other signs of injury to the child’s head or body. If there are visible injuries they may be:
You will be asked about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. An eye exam may also be done. Your child may be referred to doctors who specialize in brain injuries. This may include a neurologist or neurosurgeon.
Imaging tests evaluate your child's brain and surrounding structures. These can be done with:
Your child's bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.
It is important to get medical care right away if the baby is severely or violently shaken. Immediately take the child to an emergency room. Early medical care may decrease the amount of brain damage. Don't let embarrassment, guilt, or fear get in the way of protecting the child's health or life.
The goal of immediate care is to stop any further brain damage and support the baby. Early intervention is treatment or therapy to help the baby's long-term recovery.
The child's treatment plan will be based on the specific injuries the child has. Some steps for immediate care include:
If the baby survives the injuries, the full recovery can take months to years. This type of injury can impair or delay motor skills like eating, walking, or speech. Early intervention is a form of rehabilitation. It can help the child develop motor skills as expected. The treatments include working with a team of doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation therapists. The sooner this treatment starts, the better the baby will do over time.
A family therapist is also important. This therapy will help with emotional issues related to a child’s injury.
It is important to talk to anyone caring for your baby about the dangers of shaking. Taking care of a crying baby can be very frustrating for anyone. If you have tried to calm the crying baby, but feel like nothing is working, then stay in control of your temper. Keep from hurting the baby out of frustration. If you feel you might lose control, take the following steps:
Share this information with anyone who is caring for the baby.
Brain Injury Association of America
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society
Sick Kids—The Hospital for Sick Children
Abusive head trauma. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/brain/shaken.html. Updated March 2014. Accessed September 21, 2017.
Concussion and mild traumatic brain injury. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116529/Concussion-and-mild-traumatic-brain-injury. Updated June 21, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017.
Moderate to severe traumatic brain injury. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T900588/Moderate-to-severe-traumatic-brain-injury. Updated April 10, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017.
Shaken baby syndrome. American Association of Neurological Surgeons website. Available at: http://www.aans.org/Patient%20Information/Conditions%20and%20Treatments/Shaken%20Baby%20Syndrome.aspx. Accessed September 21, 2017.
Shaken baby syndrome. American Humane Association website. Available at: http://www.americanhumane.org/children/stop-child-abuse/fact-sheets/shaken-baby-syndrome.html. Accessed September 21, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Kari Kassir, MD Last Updated: 9/30/2013