How to Recognize & Prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS)

October 19, 2016

Why does Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) happen? What would cause a parent or a child care provider to actually shake a child that is in their care? How can parents recognize if their child has been violently shaken or is suffering for SBS? How often does it happen? Can it be prevented?

In this article, we’ll take a look at this form of child abuse that can result in permanent brain damage and death.

What Is Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Abusive head trauma or SBS is a form of brain damage the can impair a child’s growth or even lead to death. This trauma happens when a child is dropped, thrown or violently shaken. There are many instances when a caregiver is frustrated and can’t get a child to stop crying.

In this video, a doctor explained why this form of trauma happens saying,

“A baby’s head is relatively large and heavy. And is about 25% of the baby’s total body weight. Their neck muscles are usually too weak to support their large head. If a baby or toddler is violently shaken, it takes only a few seconds to do irreversible damage to their brain or other areas of their body. An infant’s brain is immature, it is more easily injured by shaking. The blood vessels around a baby’s brain are more vulnerable to tearing. A baby’s small size also increases their risk for injury. During sudden and vigorous shaking, an infant’s brain rotates and pitches in different directions within the skull cavity… blood vessels that feed the brain are torn and this causes bleeding around the vein. Blood then pools in the skull and sometimes causes pressure and additional brain damage.”

Shaken Baby Syndrome Statistics

According to statistics, in the United States, 1,200 to 1,400 babies are injured every year. Over 25% of these babies die and 70-80% have permanent neurological problems.

One couple adopted a newborn and found out that at six months of age, he was blind and had cerebral palsy, which was the result of SBS. The doctors advised his new parents that the new baby would never be able to walk and provided advice on end-of-life care.

How to Recognize the Symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Many parents will intuitively know if their baby has been traumatized.

Some notable symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Unconsciousness
  • Abnormally sized forehead
  • Bruising, blue or pale skin
  • Seizures
  • Poor appetite

source: Cleveland Clinic

How can Shaken Baby Syndrome be Prevented?

Many hospitals provide new parents with educational material or videos instructing them about the severity of angrily shaking a baby. Chris Vona, a registered nurse spoke on the syndrome, why it happens and how parents notice it,

“No one ever wakes up and says ‘I’m going to shake my baby!’ It’s a response to a feeling of frustration and things like that… Parents are pretty in tuned to their babies and most parents would recognize a definite change…”

Unfortunately, a few moments of anger can turn into a lifetime of disability. One father spoke of the experience of his step-daughter who was the victim of SBS, from her biological father. He provided his thoughts on SBS and how it can happen saying,

“Statistics show that 70% of babies that are shaken are shaken by men. At first, I thought, to myself hearing that ‘Who could shake a baby?’ But now, I understand the stresses of being a parent. Most people who do this, do not do it unintentionally. They are just caught in a situation they didn’t walk away from. Anybody who’s taking care of a baby, this message is especially for men, when you get stressed out, don’t take it out on your baby! Just take a break.”

Understand Why Babies Cry So Much and What You Can Do

SBS is usually the result frustration because a baby doesn’t stop crying. Parents and child care providers need to understand why a newborn cries. There are many factors which may contribute to a baby crying, this includes, hunger, gas, a dirty diaper, wants to be held, sleep deprivation or want to be held.

Susan Burchfield, a specialist in trauma prevention spoke on understanding a crying baby saying,

“… some babies do cry up to six hours a day, which as you can imagine can be extremely frustrating for a parent. It can be something that just gets on your nerves. If your baby’s crying, which you think is an abnormal amount of time, check with your health care provider. Rule out everything it could be. Make sure that it’s truly not a health issue… Once you’ve ruled that out and know you have a healthy infant that just cries, then learn what you can do to try and soothe them. Are they hungry? Are they wet? Are they cold? Are they warm? Do they enjoy being around white noise?… Learn what soothes and calms your baby.”

If you’re a parent, try different methods to effectively get your baby to stop crying.

What about Nannies & Daycare Staff?

If you’re considering hiring a nanny you don’t know or taking your child to a daycare facility ask specific questions about the methods they use to get a child to stop crying.

The 5 S’s to Soothe a Crying Baby

Internationally respected pediatrician Harvey Karp advises parents and caregivers to use the 5 S’s in order to get a baby to stop crying. These techniques look to recreate the comfort and familiarity of the womb to activate a baby’s calming reflex.

1. Swaddling - securely wrap baby in a blanket

2. Side or Stomach Position - hold baby laying on side or stomach- but put on on back when sleeping

3. Shushing - create “white noise”

4. Swinging - create a rhythmic swinging motion

5. Sucking - use a pacifier or something baby can suck on

Adapted from Harvey Karp’s book The Happiest Baby on the Block


If parents or caregivers find themselves getting overwhelmed or stressed, it is important that they take a break or ask for help. A moment of frustration can lead to a lifetime of difficulty or even death for a child.

For more articles like this one check out the Pregnancy & Babies section of your blog.

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