What You Should Know About Shaken Baby Syndrome

Shaken Baby Syndrome Leads to Disability and Death

Shaken baby syndrome, which may also be called abusive head trauma, happens when the caregiver of an infant or baby strikes the back of a child’s head against a surface, or vigorously shakes the child.

Research shows that babies who have underlying medical problems such as colic, which cause the baby to cry a lot, are at a higher risk of shaken baby syndrome. It is also more likely if one of the parents abuses alcohol or drugs.

However, it can happen to all infants and babies regardless of underlying health issues or demographics.

Shaken baby syndrome is usually the result of the parent or caregiver getting frustrated because the baby won’t stop crying. In a moment of anger, the caregiver violently shakes the baby causing irreversible brain damage.  

Shaking a baby is extremely dangerous, can lead to permanent disability or death. Never shake a baby.

What Happens to the Brain

Shaking a baby causes head trauma and brain injury. A baby’s neck muscles are not fully developed. This means when they are vigorously shaken, they can’t control their head movements. In the same way an adult loses control over how the head moves during the impact of a car accident, a baby loses control over how her head moves when she is shaken.

As the baby is shaken, the brain is pulled and twisted inside the skull. It hits the front, sides and back of the skull.

This causes bleeding and swelling of the brain. Nerve cells and brain tissue may also tear. If the head strikes the side of the crib or other hard surface, this causes further damage.

Since the brain is enclosed inside the bony skull, there is nowhere for it to expand once the tissues are injured. Swelling causes great pressure that squeezes down on the brain.

This pressure cuts off blood supply and oxygen throughout the brain.

Symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome

Untreated, a baby who was shaken and has become unconscious is at risk of dying. If a baby or young child is not responding always call 911 and get them emergency care right away.

Here are some symptoms of head trauma and brain injury in children that should always be evaluated in person by a licensed medical professional:

  • Change in normal facial expression
  • Pupil sizes that are not equal
  • Inability to lift or hold up the head (if it was present before)
  • Not responding in the same way to loved ones
  • No longer making any sounds/vocalizations
  • Difficulty sucking or swallowing
  • Lethargy and not interacting with the environment
  • Seizures or a rigid/stiff body
  • Keeping the arms or legs straight
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing or turning blue due to not breathing

Depending on the severity and character of the injury, symptoms may differ. Any time there is concern that a head injury may have occurred it’s best to seek immediate medical attention.

Children who survive infant head trauma may develop these complications:

    These effects may not become apparent for some time after the baby was abused. Repetitive head trauma makes the symptoms worse.

    Long Term Development

    Head trauma during early childhood has life-long effects. The brain is rapidly growing during this time. Any changes to how nerve cells function has an impact on ability to move, ability to see, ability to learn and communicate, and ability to successfully interact with the environment.

    Both occupational and physical therapy may be needed to help the child catch up to her peers, and learn skills that would otherwise have developed on their own.

    Getting Help

    Shaken baby syndrome and abusive head trauma do not need to happen to any baby.

    Any time the stress of being a parent or caregiver gets overwhelming it’s essential to get help. It is appropriate to call emergency services if there is an impulse to injure a child. They can then involve the right services so everyone gets the help they need, and the baby stays safe.


    Azzi, T. T., Zacharias, L. C., & Gianotti Pimentel, S. L. (2014). Spontaneous Absorption of Extensive Subinternal Limiting Membrane Hemorrhage in Shaken Baby Syndrome. Case Reports In Ophthalmological Medicine, 1-3. doi:10.1155/2014/360829

    Stoll, B., & Anderson, J. K. (2013). Prevention of Abusive Head Trauma: A Literature Review. Pediatric Nursing, 39(6), 300-308 9p.

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