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Shaken Baby Syndrome: Men Inflict More Harm

Study Shows Men Are More Likely Than Women to Be Jailed for Shaking or Slamming Kids
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 4, 2011 -- Children with shaken baby syndrome, a form of child abuse, tend to suffer worse injuries from male perpetrators than from females, a new study suggests.

Men are also far more likely than women to be convicted of shaking or slamming a baby, finds Debra Esernio-Jenssen, MD, medical director of the child protection team at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

"Even when controlling for defendant and offense characteristics, women were statistically more likely than men to be released and have their charges dropped," Esernio-Jenssen and colleagues find. "In addition, when convicted, female defendants received lighter sentences."

Brain damage caused by abusive shaking or slamming is now officially called abusive head trauma, according to 2009 guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Technically, shaken baby syndrome is a subset of abusive head trauma.

The new name reflects that the diagnosis is based on injury to the child's brain, and not on a specific action that caused the injury, says Jordan Greenbaum, MD, medical director of the child protection center at Children's Hospital of Atlanta.

"Abusive head trauma refers to any inflicted, non-accidental head injury. It is not restricted to shaking," Greenbaum tells WebMD. "We can't tell in a lot of cases whether the child has been shaken."

Neither abusive head trauma nor shaken baby syndrome can be caused by normal baby handling.

"It requires a great deal of force, because milder forces are common among children," Greenbaum says. "If it were in the realm of normal or near-normal forces, the emergency rooms would be seeing a lot more cases. This is well outside the range of forces usually seen in normal child care."

Shaken baby syndrome is a controversial diagnosis. Last month, an article in The New York Times Magazine gave voice to medical experts who say shaking cannot cause brain damage, as well as to medical experts who say it most certainly does.

"Mainstream physicians and surgeons recognize this as a real diagnosis," Greenbaum says. "We also recognize it is complex. You have to take into consideration a lot of very real information. This diagnosis does not rest on one or two findings but on a careful analysis of the whole picture."

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