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Shaken Baby Syndrome

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.

What is shaken baby syndrome?

Shaken baby syndrome is brain injury caused by violent shaking. It is also called abusive head trauma. Intense shaking causes your baby's brain to bleed, bruise, and swell. This leads to decreased oxygen to your baby's brain. It may result in permanent, severe brain damage and can be life-threatening.

What increases the risk for shaken baby syndrome?

Anyone caring for a baby may get frustrated, frightened, or angry due to the baby's uncontrolled crying. The person may shake the baby out of frustration, in a desire to stop the baby from crying. This is considered child abuse, even if it is an accident. Shaken baby syndrome is most common in babies but can happen to children up to 5 years of age.

What are the signs of shaken baby syndrome?

  • Fussiness or uncontrolled crying
  • Cool, pale, or blue skin, or bruising
  • Poor feeding or vomiting
  • Weakness, sleepiness, or difficulty waking
  • Blood or blood spots in the eyes
  • Bulging soft spot on the head
  • Seizures or coma
  • Trouble breathing or slow breathing

How is shaken baby syndrome diagnosed?

Healthcare providers often look for certain injuries. These include any bruising in babies younger than 4 months, and bruising around the ears, neck, and torso of children younger than 4 years. Your baby may need any of the following tests:

  • Ophthalmoscopy allows healthcare providers to see the back of your baby's eye. They may use eye drops to dilate the pupil. This helps them see the back of your baby's eyes clearly.
  • CT or MRI pictures of your baby's head may show bleeding and swelling. Your baby may be given contrast liquid to help healthcare providers see the bleeding and swelling better. Tell the healthcare provider if your baby has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if your baby has any metal in or on his or her body.

How is shaken baby syndrome treated?

  • Medicines may be given in your baby's IV to decrease brain swelling and prevent seizures.
  • A ventilator is a machine to help your baby breathe if he or she has trouble breathing on his or her own.
  • Surgery may be needed to place a shunt in your baby's head. A shunt helps relieve pressure from fluid buildup in the space around the brain. Surgery may also be needed to decrease bleeding in or around his or her brain.

What are the risks of shaken baby syndrome?

A baby who has shaken baby syndrome may have bleeding into the eyes. This may lead to blindness. He or she may also have developmental delays, nerve and muscle problems, or slow growth as he or she gets older. These problems may require lifelong medical care. Shaken baby syndrome can be life-threatening.

Keep emergency phone numbers handy:

Keep a list of phone numbers where you can find them quickly in an emergency. The Childhelp National Abuse Helpline number is 1-800-422-4453 . Also include phone numbers of people you trust and local police or emergency phone numbers.

What should I do if my baby will not stop crying?

  • Stop. Put the baby in a safe place and leave the room. Do not touch the baby if you are very upset or angry.
  • Calm down. Call hotline numbers or a friend or family member for advice and support. Slowly count to 10 and take some deep breaths.
  • Go back to your baby. When you have calmed down, try again to help him or her stop crying. Try putting the baby in a carrier, or taking him or her for a walk in a stroller. You may also try to comfort with a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.

What can I do to prevent shaken baby syndrome?

  • Choose caregivers carefully. Make sure everyone who cares for your baby, including babysitters, understands the dangers of shaking a baby. Do not leave your baby alone with anyone you have concerns about.
  • Stay patient and focused. Crying is normal for a baby. A baby cries for many reasons. He or she may be hungry, need a diaper change, or may be too cold or hot. Sometimes babies cry just to be held. Crying may also be a way for your baby to release stress or tension. Crying may also tell you that your baby is hurt or sick. You may need to try several things to find out what your baby needs or wants. Stay calm and focus on helping or comforting your baby.
  • Manage your feelings. It is normal to feel upset and angry when your baby cries and cannot be consoled. Learn how to handle these feelings. Plan ahead to prevent hurting your baby. Call a friend or family member when you feel upset with your baby. Post hotline numbers where you can see them and use them.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) for any of the following:

  • You think you might shake your baby or hurt him or her in some other way.
  • Your baby is having trouble breathing or stops breathing completely.
  • Your baby is very sleepy, is difficult to wake up, or will not wake up at all.
  • Your baby has a seizure.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your baby has no energy or is limp like a rag doll.
  • You think your baby has been shaken by another person.
  • Your baby does not want to eat or is vomiting.
  • Your baby is very cranky and crying more than usual.

When should I call my baby's doctor?

  • Your baby has a fever.
  • Your baby is crying hard and cannot be consoled.
  • You have questions or concerns about your baby's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your baby's care. Learn about your baby's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your baby's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your baby. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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