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Shaken Baby Syndrome - Topic Overview

What is shaken baby syndrome?

Shaken baby syndrome is brain injury that occurs when someone shakes a baby or throws a baby against an object. It is a form of child abuse. It may happen to children up to 5 years of age, but it is most common in babies younger than 1 year old.

It is never okay to shake or throw a young child. It may not leave any obvious sign of injury, but it can cause serious long-term problems or even death.

Shaken baby syndrome often occurs when a baby won't stop crying and a caregiver loses control of his or her emotions. Parents can help prevent this problem by learning healthy ways to relieve stress and anger. It's also important to choose child care providers carefully.

Shaken baby syndrome may also be called "shaken-impact syndrome." Many doctors use the term "abusive head trauma" to describe the injury. They may use "intentional head injury" to describe how it happened.

What causes the brain injury?

When a baby is shaken or thrown, the head twists or whips back and forth. This can cause tears in brain tissue, blood vessels, and nerves. The child's brain slams against the skull. This can cause bleeding and swelling in the brain.

Young children are at high risk for brain injury when they are shaken or thrown. That's because they have:

  • Heavy, large heads for their body size.
  • Weak neck muscles that don't hold up the head well.
  • Delicate blood vessels in their brains.

Normal play, such as bouncing a child on a knee or gently tossing a child in the air, does not cause shaken baby syndrome.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms vary among children based on how old they are, how often they've been abused, how long they were abused each time, and how much force was used.

Mild injuries may cause subtle symptoms. For example, a child may:

  • Be fussy, grouchy, or sluggish.
  • Vomit.
  • Not be hungry.

A child with more severe injuries may have symptoms such as:

  • Seizures.
  • A slow heartbeat.
  • Trouble hearing.
  • Bleeding inside one or both eyes.
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