Saskatchewan Institute on Prevention of Handicaps

The combination of a crying baby and a frustrated parent or caregiver CAN BE DEADLY.

Why do babies CRY?

Crying is the only way babies have to tell us that they need something. They might need to eat, to have their diaper changed or to be held. The baby could be too hot or too cold or in pain. Sometimes babies cry because they need to release some tension of their own. Crying is normal. The amount of time a baby spends crying varies with age, health and temperament.

Why do parents and caregivers become FRUSTRATED and ANGRY?

Crying is an annoying sound. It is supposed to be. If it was a pleasant sound, crying would be easy to ignore and the baby's needs would never be met. Unfortunately, parents and caregivers are not always able to stop the crying. When a baby cries a lot and is not easily consoled, the parent or caregiver may start to doubt their own abilities to care for the baby. Lack of sleep and other life stresses can increase the feelings of helplessness and frustration. Sometimes parents or caregivers believe that a crying baby is misbehaving on purpose.

What can a parent or caregiver do?

Stay calm. A frustrated or angry parent or caregiver will have a hard time getting a baby to settle down. If feeding, changing, walking, rocking and cuddling have not worked, the baby should be gently placed in a safe place and allowed to "cry it out" for a few minutes. The parent or caregiver can use the time to relax and calm down before making another attempt to console the baby.

NEVER SHAKE A BABY!

Shaking a baby in a moment of frustration can cause serious harm or death. When an infant is shaken, the head jerks back and forth rapidly causing the brain to slam repeatedly against the inside of the skull. Blood vessels in and around the brain are damaged and begin to bleed into the brain and into the space between the brain and the skull. The bleeding and swelling of the brain causes pressure to build up inside the child's head. The resulting damage can cause permanent disability or even death. Because babies have weak neck muscles and heavy heads, even a few seconds of forceful shaking can cause serious damage to babies and small children.  Children under one year of age, especially baby boys, are most at risk. Older children can also be hurt if they are shaken hard.

What happens to shaken babies?

As many as one third of the victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome die. The survivors often suffer lifelong disabilities due to the brain injury such as:

  • blindness.
  • paralysis.
  • mental disabilities.
  • growth and development problems.
  • seizure disorders.
  • Some babies who are shaken also have broken ribs or arms from being held tightly by the person doing the shaking.

    How much shaking is dangerous?

    Victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome have been violently shaken. Their injuries are at least as severe as that which would occur if an infant was dropped from a high building. Although it is unlikely that severe injuries would occur from tossing an infant in the air playfully or bouncing a small child on a knee, parents and caregivers should always consider the fragility of an infant's brain and the need to support the head and neck. Even minor injuries to a baby's brain can have life long consequences.

    It is never okay to shake a baby!

    How can Shaken Baby Syndrome be prevented?

    Providing information on the care and normal development of infants is an essential element in the prevention of Shaken Baby Syndrome. It is also important that parents and caregivers understand that the feelings of frustration they experience are common and very normal. Learning how to handle those feelings can be made easier through community education and support programs.

    It is important that all caregivers know that SHAKING IS DANGEROUS. Parents should ensure that babysitters and daycare providers are informed and experienced.

    Information on Shaken Baby Syndrome adapted from:

    Bonnier, Christine et al. Outcome and Prognosis of Whiplash Shaken Infant Syndrome; Late Consequences after a Symptom-Free Interval. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology 1995;37.

    Butler, Gail. Shaken Baby Syndrome. Journal of Psycho-social Nursing 1995;33,no.9.

    Chiocca, Ellen M. Shaken Baby Syndrome: A Nursing Perpective. Pediatric Nursing 1995;21,no.1.

    Midwest Children's Resource Center (MCRC) - Children's Health Care - St. Paul Minnesota - pamphlet and fact sheet

    Showers, Jacy. The National Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome - A Legal & Prevention Challenge, Executive Summary, National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions 1996/97.

    Starling, Suzanne et al. Abusive Head Trauma: The relationship of perpetrators to their victims. Pediatrics 1995;95,no.2.

    For printed copies of this Fact Sheet, contact the Saskatchewan Institute on Prevention of Handicaps.