Parenting Tip of the Week - Preventing Shaken Baby Syndrome

Prevent Child Abuse America | Preventchildabuse.org

The first few years of life are critical for the development of children, but they can also be incredibly frustrating for parents. Whether it’s crying for hours on end or not sleeping through the night, there are many challenges that parents can face. With new research coming out about abusive head trauma, also known as Shaken Baby Syndrome, we wanted to share some information for parents and caregivers that could help during those frustrating early months.

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What is Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), also called abusive head trauma, is a form of child abuse. Like the name implies, this kind of abuse involves shaking a baby hard from their shoulders, arms or legs which can cause serious and lifelong damage. The “whiplash” effect from the shaking can cause major damage to a baby’s fragile and still-developing brain, so children under the age of 1 are especially at risk.

Important side note: Not everything that causes a baby’s head to “shake” will cause shaken baby syndrome. For example, playfully tossing a baby in the air or a baby accidentally rolling off a couch or chair won’t cause injuries consistent with abusive head trauma.

The effects of shaken baby syndrome are severe and potentially life-threatening. According to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, 25% of shaken baby syndrome cases result in death and 80% of non-fatal cases result in lifelong consequences, including learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and decreased brain function.

Shaken Baby Syndrome is Preventable

Fortunately, shaken baby syndrome is 100% preventable. The best way to prevent shaken baby syndrome involves taking two key steps.

First, ensure that all caregivers are aware of the dangers that shaking a baby can have. This includes not only the baby’s parents, but also grandparents, babysitters, siblings, or others who may be involved in the baby’s care. 

Second, ensure that caregivers understand that taking care of a child – no matter how much they love that child – can and will be very frustrating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most cases of shaken baby syndrome occur when a caregiver gets frustrated and loses control, not because caregivers want to purposefully injure a child. But ensuring that parents and caregivers are aware that there will be moments where the frustration boils over isn’t enough without also providing strategies for dealing with that frustration!

Coping Mechanisms and Strategies

One way to help parents and caregivers deal with frustration is to prepare them for what’s ahead. While extremely frustrating, the fact is that crying, including prolonged bouts of inconsolable crying, is a normal part of child development and follows what is called a “crying curve.” Babies will typically start crying more after about 2-3 weeks, reach a peak between 9 and 12 weeks of age, and will become more stable by 29-32 weeks. It is during the three to four months of this curve that caregivers are at the highest risk of letting their frustration boil over.

When babies are crying incessantly, parents and caregivers can try to calm their child by rubbing their back, gently rocking, singing to the baby, or taking their baby for a walk. However, there may be times where these tried and true strategies don’t work and your baby simply won’t calm down. When this happens, first recognize that this is not your fault as a parent and that you haven’t done anything wrong. Next, it can be helpful to remove yourself from the situation and give yourself a few minutes alone to calm down. Some coping strategies parents can use include:

  1. Take a deep breath and another. Press your lips together and count to 10, or better yet, to 20.
  2. If someone can watch the children, go outside and take a walk.
  3. If not, put your baby on their back in their crib, make sure they are safe, and then walk away for a bit.
  4. Put yourself in a time-out chair. Think about why you are angry and what might make you feel better that you can do for yourself.
  5. Call a friend or family member to vent or ask for help.
  6. Take a hot bath or splash cold water on your face
  7. Hug a pillow.
  8. Turn on some music. Maybe even sing along.
  9. Pick up a pencil and write down as many helpful words as you can think of. Save the list.
  10. Call for prevention information: 1-800-CHILDREN

Even if you are not a parent or caregiver yourself, you can still help prevent shaken baby syndrome. As a family member or friend of a parent whose children are going through this tough development stage, you can provide support by:

  • Offering to babysit for an evening to give the new parents a break,
  • Be present as a shoulder to lean on and a listening ear,
  • Ensure that there are parent education and support programs in your community that other parents can turn to in times of need. If no such programs exist, you can work with your community leaders to start them.