Babies are so tiny and soft compared to mom and dad. That’s why there’s always that initial fear in new parents of somehow “breaking” their fragile little one. Rest assured that this worry doesn’t last long. First-time parents soon get used to holding their infant and even find that their child loves being cuddled and carried.
However, caution should still be taken when it comes to an infant’s head and neck area. Vigorously shaking a child could cause shaken baby syndrome, a serious brain injury that can result in permanent brain damage and even death in babies and toddlers, according to Mayo Clinic.
A baby’s brain is still soft, and the muscles in his neck are not fully developed, forensic pediatrician Dr. Kieran Moran, told the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. When a baby is shaken, his neck is unable to support his own head. “The violent movement pitches the baby's brain back and forth within the skull,” said KidsHealth. This can rupture blood vessels and nerves, and tear brain tissue. Bruising and bleeding to the brain can also happen when the baby’s brain strikes the inside of his skull.
Shaken baby syndrome is the most common form of abusive head trauma, according to BabyCenter. It often causes irreversible damage even if the baby was shaken for only a few seconds with one in four cases resulting in death, said KidsHealth. Those who survive can suffer severe consequences. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), these include blindness, hearing loss, seizures, speech and learning disabilities, intellectual disability and cerebral palsy.
It commonly happens to babies less than a year old with the highest risk at 2 to 4 months of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, there have been reported cases in children up to 5 years old. After a baby is violently shaken, there can be a loss of consciousness, unresponsiveness and irregular breathing. Babies can also exhibit vomiting, change in sleeping pattern, convulsions, irritability and uncontrollable crying.
But, how likely is shaken baby syndrome to happen with everyday care of your infant? “Bouncing a baby on your leg, swinging him in his swing, jiggling a child in your arms, or tossing him gently in the air won't cause abusive head trauma. An accidental fall is also extremely unlikely to cause the condition,” said BabyCenter.
So when does it happen? Abusive head trauma happens when a baby is deliberately violently shaken or hit. It can happen when a caregiver excessively frustrated or anger from a baby’s inconsolable crying, according to the CDC.
Renowned pediatrician and child development expert, Dr. Harvey Karp said that shaken baby syndrome along with postpartum depression and unsafe sleeping practices are more and more being caused by the unique challenges parents of today are facing.
“They have less support, whether it's family or neighborhood support,” said Dr. Karp. “Parents are so tough on themselves. In fact, parents think they're not even supposed to have help. Everyone thinks they’re supposed to do it on their own.”
He reassured parents that babies do cry inconsolably at times and it can indeed be frustrating for any parent. “Some babies cry for hours. We call it colic. There's nothing you can do for it. Some babies just don't want to sleep. It takes them three to four months before they figure out how to sleep,” said Dr. Karp.
Dr. Bob Sege, the division director of Family and Child Advocacy at Boston Medical Center, told NPR, “If you're a parent and you feel that [frustration], that's the time you put the baby down screaming and crying, close a door, make a cup a tea, call a friend, whatever you need to.”