The study marks the first time researchers looked at rates of non-fatal maltreatment in infants under 1 year of age. It also reveals that a high proportion of the maltreatment in infants occurred during the first week of life. Maltreatment includes physical abuse, neglect or deprivation of necessities, medical neglect, sexual abuse, and psychological or emotional maltreatment.
"We certainly were distressed," says Ileana Arias, PhD, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. "What the data suggest is that maltreatment is taking place earlier than we had been focusing on."
Researchers say they don't yet have data to indicate whether neglect and abuse in very young infants is getting better or worse.
"This is the first opportunity we've had to look within that age group," says Rebecca Leeb, PhD, the lead researcher of the study.
The study appears in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Risks of Child Neglect
Neglect accounted for about 70% of the total reported cases in infants 1 week old or less, researchers say, while physical and sexual abuse accounted for 13%.
The researchers say they were struck by findings that for infants who were maltreated in the first month of life, the vast majority occurred within three days of birth. Arias calls it a "clear pattern" of early abuse that could be preventable.
Early neglect and abuse raises the likelihood of a child's risky behavior in adolescence and in turn could influence drug and alcohol use later in life, says Joan E. Ohl, commissioner for children, youth and families in the Administration for Children and Families.
The report defined neglect as failure to meet basic needs, including shelter, food, clothing, education, and medical care.
Researchers say they need more studies to find out how educational level, income, and other factors affect maltreatment of infants. But they also call for more attention in prenatal settings and in hospitals before new mothers take their babies home.
"There isn't routine training of individuals of how to parent," Arias says.