Shaken Baby Syndrome or Abusive Head Trauma

Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS)

Shaken baby syndrome (SBS or Abusive Head Trauma) affects between 1,200 and 1,600 children per year.  Leaving no external evidence of trauma, shaken baby syndrome is a form of child abuse that occurs when an abuser vigorously shakes an infant or small child so violently that is causes acceleration-deceleration injuries in the brain.   In about one third of the cases, shaken baby syndrome is fatal.  It is the leading cause of death in child abuse cases.   If not fatal, SBS can also cause severe brain damage in another one third of the victims and result in visual impairment, blindess, motor impairment, or cognitive impairments.

The most common symptom is retinal hemorrhaging where the retina of the eyes bleeds.   Often is can only be detected via a professional eye exam.  The type of damage caused by shaken baby syndrome cannot be caused by accident.   So much violent force is necessary that it is impossible for the abuser to not know the shaking is dangerous and potentially deadly.  Such injuries are rarely caused by innocent falls of impacts from normal play.  The severity of the injury is much worse than accidental traumatic brain injury.

Why does it occur?

In a young child, the neck muscles are not fully developed.   When an abuser shakes a small child, the head rotates uncontrollably.   This movement pitches the child’s brain back and forth inside the skull and ruptures blood vessels, damages nerves, and even tears the brain tissue itself.   After shaking, swelling in the brain causes pressure within the skull which increases overall damage to the delicate brain tissue.

Who does this to their child?

Typically the abuse is caused by a parent or caregiver who is frustrated, typically because the child is crying.   In these cases, the pain from the shaking will cause the child to cry more which results in harsher shaking from the abuser.   Then as brain damage sets in, the crying from the child diminishes providing the desired result the abuser is looking for.

Symptoms of shaken baby syndrome will most likely not be immediately noticeable.   Symptoms include extreme irritability, lethargy, breathing problems, convulsions, vomiting, and pale or bluish colored skin.  The prognosis is grim for victims.  In almost all cases there is permanent injuries, some of which may never be noticed until after the age of six.

Most victims are under the age of one year old although children as old as four years old have occurred.   In about 80% of the abusive head trauma cases, the abuser is male.

Sources: Wikipedia, Kid’s Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders

Reviewed: 11/10/10

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