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Home > Patient & Family Resources > Health Library > Shaken Baby Syndrome
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Shaken baby syndrome is brain injury that occurs when someone shakes a baby or throws a baby against an object. It is a form of child abuse. It may happen to children up to 5 years of age, but it is most common in babies younger than 1 year old.
It is never okay to shake or throw a young child. It may not leave any obvious sign of injury, but it can cause serious long-term problems or even death.
Shaken baby syndrome often occurs when a baby won't stop crying and a caregiver loses control of his or her emotions. Parents can help prevent this problem by learning healthy ways to relieve stress and anger. It's also important to choose child care providers carefully.
Shaken baby syndrome may also be called "shaken-impact syndrome." Many doctors use the term "abusive head trauma" to describe the injury. They may use "intentional head injury" to describe how it happened.
When a baby is shaken or thrown, the head twists or whips back and forth. This can cause tears in brain tissue, blood vessels, and nerves. The child's brain slams against the skull. This can cause bleeding and swelling in the brain.
Young children are at high risk for brain injury when they are shaken or thrown. That's because they have:
Normal play, such as bouncing a child on a knee or gently tossing a child in the air, does not cause shaken baby syndrome.
Symptoms vary among children based on how old they are, how often they've been abused, how long they were abused each time, and how much force was used.
Mild injuries may cause subtle symptoms. For example, a child may:
A child with more severe injuries may have symptoms such as:
A child who has been shaken or thrown may also have other signs of abuse, such as broken bones, bruises, or burns.
Symptoms can start quickly, especially in a badly injured child. Other times, it may take a few days for brain swelling to cause symptoms.
Sometimes caregivers who harm a child will put the child to bed. They may hope that symptoms will get better with rest. By the time the child gets to a doctor, the child may need urgent care. In some cases, the child may be in a coma before a caregiver seeks help.
Shaken baby syndrome can be hard to detect because often there aren't clear signs of abuse. Instead, a baby may have vague symptoms, such as vomiting or a poor appetite. At first these symptoms may seem related to an infection, such as the flu or a kidney infection. Sadly, shaken baby syndrome may not be discovered until repeated abuse or more severe harm occurs.
To confirm a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome, a doctor will:
A doctor may also do tests to rule out other possible causes of the child's symptoms. For example, a lumbar puncture checks the spinal fluid for signs of meningitis. Blood tests may be done to check for internal injuries or to rule out other conditions, such as rare blood disorders.
A doctor who suspects shaken baby syndrome must report it to the local child welfare office and police.
A child with shaken baby syndrome needs to be in the hospital, sometimes in an intensive care unit (ICU). Oxygen therapy may be used to help the child breathe. Doctors may give the child medicine to help ease brain swelling. Sometimes a cooling mattress will help lower the child's body temperature and reduce brain swelling.
Depending on the symptoms, doctors may try seizure medicine, physical therapy, or other treatments. A child who has severe bleeding in the brain may need surgery.
A child may have brain damage that causes one or more serious problems, such as:
Some children die from their injuries.
It is important to get help if something doesn't seem right with your baby. Shaken baby syndrome may cause only mild symptoms at first, but any head injury in a young child can be dangerous.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if a child:
Young children can't defend themselves, so it is up to adults who care to protect them. If you suspect abuse and the child is not in immediate danger:
Current as of:
January 31, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: John Pope MD - PediatricsKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineChuck Norlin MD - Pediatrics
Current as of: January 31, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:John Pope MD - Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Chuck Norlin MD - Pediatrics
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