Shaken baby syndrome

Shaken baby syndrome

It is never ever OK to shake a baby. Make sure that all the people who care for your baby know this. Never leave your baby alone with anyone that you think might lose control. Have a plan for what you will do if your baby keeps crying and you become upset or frustrated.

Power to Protect. Never, ever shake a baby

Power to Protect. Never, ever shake a baby

Reproduced with permission of Starship Foundation.

Key points to remember

Crying is how babies communicate - it does not mean your baby is being naughty.

  • it is never ever OK to shake a baby - make sure that all the people who care for your baby know this
  • never leave your baby alone with anyone that you think might lose control
  • have a plan for what you will do if your baby keeps crying and you become upset or frustrated - there are things you can do and people who can help you
  • crying is how babies communicate - it does not mean your baby is being naughty

What is shaken baby syndrome?

It may only take 1 or 2 hard shakes to seriously injure a small child.

Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is a combination of serious injuries that can occur when someone violently shakes an infant or young toddler.

It is the single most preventable cause of serious head injury in babies under 1 year of age in New Zealand.

It may only take 1 or 2 hard shakes to seriously injure a small child. This is because babies and toddlers have relatively big, heavy heads and weak neck muscles. When they are shaken, the brain slams back and forth inside the skull, resulting in bleeding around the brain and damage to the brain itself. Some babies may even stop breathing, which can cause further brain damage.

The shaking can also cause bleeding into the back of the eyes. Many babies who are shaken also have broken ribs because they are held forcibly around the chest and squeezed when they are shaken. They may also suffer other broken bones during the shaking.

How can SBS happen?

SBS usually happens when a parent or other caregiver shakes a baby or toddler very hard because they are very frustrated with them. The number one reason given for shaking a baby is “I just wanted the baby to stop crying”. Forceful shaking may stop the baby crying, because it causes a head injury.

See the following for information and tips for when your baby is crying:

  • the section below - how can you prevent SBS?
  • Crying - what to do on this website
  • Power to protect - coping with a crying baby video (at the top of the page), based on an educational DVD which is a part of a shaken baby prevention programme aiming to educate caregivers on coping with a crying baby and the dangers of shaking a baby

What are the consequences of shaking a baby?

Every baby is different, so the symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include poor feeding, vomiting, irritability, fits (seizures), drowsiness, breathing problems and even coma or stopping breathing completely.

There are serious long-term consequences for babies that are severely shaken. Some of these consequences may be avoided if help is sought immediately. There may be:

  • permanent brain damage
  • paralysis (caused by damage to the spinal cord)
  • blindness
  • deafness
  • fits (seizures)
  • broken bones
  • delays of normal development
  • death

Overall, in babies diagnosed with SBS, approximately 20 percent will die and 30 - 60 percent will suffer moderate to severe injuries. 

How can you prevent SBS?

It helps to have a plan of what you will do if your baby keeps crying and you become upset or frustrated.

SBS happens when parents or caregivers get frustrated with their baby or toddler, often in the case of babies because they are crying.

Always remember:

  • crying is how babies communicate
  • it's OK to walk away
  • never, ever shake a baby!
  • never leave your baby alone with someone who may lose control
  • share this message with everyone who is caring for your baby
  • if you think your baby may be injured, seek medical help at once

It helps to have a plan of what you will do if your baby keeps crying and you become upset or frustrated.

See the section below 'What can you do if you think you might hurt your baby?'

What if my baby keeps crying?

Here are some tips to help you cope with a crying baby:

  • try feeding your baby; if they don’t seem interested, they are not hungry
  • change your baby's nappies if they are wet or dirty
  • make sure your baby is not too hot or too cold
  • try cuddling your baby – they may be lonely or need comforting
  • make sure there are no tight clothes on your baby that are hurting them somewhere
  • if your baby is showing tired signs, put them down somewhere safe to sleep - tired signs include yawning, rubbing the eyes, fist-sucking, as well as grumpiness

If you are worried that your baby is crying because they are unwell, see your doctor or after-hours medical centre.

If all of the above seem fine and your baby is still crying you could try:

  • wrapping and holding your baby safely in a light-weight blanket - many babies love to feel snug
  • singing or talking quietly to your baby, or playing some gentle music - babies like soothing noises
  • taking your baby for a walk in a front pack or stroller; you could also put your baby in their car seat and take them for a drive - motion generally helps to calm a baby down, and it’s good for you too!
  • calling a friend or family member - maybe they could come over and give you a break

If you have tried everything and your baby is still crying:

  • put your baby in a safe place (such as their bassinet or cot) and leave the room for a while
  • take a break - you have done everything that you can and have met all of your baby's needs
  • check on your baby every 10 - 15 minutes
  • never shake a baby

For more information and tips for when your baby is crying, see:

What should you do if you think your baby has been shaken?

Take your baby to your nearest doctor straight away.

Dial 111 within New Zealand for urgent medical help if your baby is unconscious or having breathing trouble. Use the appropriate emergency number in other countries.

Don't let guilt or fear get in the way of your child's health. If your baby has a serious head injury because they have been shaken, it will only get worse without treatment. Early medical attention may save your baby's life and prevent serious long-term problems.

If your baby seems quite well but is fussy and/or vomiting, it is important that you tell the doctor that you know or suspect your baby has been shaken, so that they can give the proper treatment.

What can you do if you think you might hurt your baby?

Put your baby in a safe place and leave the room. Give yourself a break and seek help.

Where can you go to for help if you feel stressed?

People who might be helpful

  • a friend or family member
  • your family doctor
  • your midwife
  • your local Plunket nurse or family centre or other Well Child provider

Telephone lines

  • Lifeline (phone 24 hours; 0800 543 354 or for callers in the Auckland area 64 9 522 2999)
  • SHINE helpline: national family violence helpline 0508 744 633. Free and confidential, operates every day 9.00am - 11.00pm
  • Samaritans (only available in some areas; phone numbers in front few pages of your white pages phone book)
  • Youthline for young parents (phone 0800 376 633)
  • Healthline on 0800 611 116 (24 hours a day; every day)
  • PlunketLine 0800 933 922 (24 hours a day; every day)

Organisations which might be helpful

  • Barnardos - 0800 BARNARDOS (0800 227627367)
  • Family Start (see contact details)
  • Child Youth and Family Services - 0508 FAMILY (0508 326 459)

Tips for staying calm with kids

Check out Staying calm with kids at the SKIP (Strategies with kids/Information for parents) website. 

Screenshot of page on SKIP website - Staying calm with kids

The video is reproduced here with the permission of Starship Foundation. Many thanks to Starship Foundation for funding the production of the DVD on which it is based.

This page last reviewed 19 April 2017.
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