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Shaken Baby Syndrome - Topic Overview

Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is a form of child abuse. It refers to brain injury that happens to the child. It occurs when someone shakes a baby or slams or throws a baby against an object. A child could be shaken by the arms, legs, chest, or shoulders.

Some experts use the term shaken-impact syndrome. Many doctors use the term abusive head trauma to describe the injury and intentional head injury to describe how it happened.

Shaken baby syndrome often occurs when a baby won't stop crying and a caregiver who is frustrated shakes the baby. To help prevent this problem, learn healthy ways to relieve stress and anger. And carefully choose your child care providers.

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

Shaken baby syndrome may occur in children up to 5 years of age, but it is most common in babies younger than 1. Shaken baby syndrome can cause serious long-term problems.

Shaking or throwing a child, or slamming a child against an object, causes uncontrollable forward, backward, and twisting head movement. Brain tissue, blood vessels, and nerves tear. The child's skull can hit the brain with force, causing brain tissue to bleed and swell.

Young children are more likely to have brain injury when they are shaken or thrown because they have:

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

Symptoms vary among kids 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. A child may vomit or be fussy or grouchy, sluggish, or not very hungry. More severe injuries may cause seizures, a slow heartbeat, trouble hearing, or bleeding inside one or both eyes.

It is important to get help if something doesn't seem right with your baby. Shaken baby syndrome may cause only mild symptoms at first, but any head injury in a young child can be dangerous. A child who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, or has seizures needs hospital care right away.

Symptoms can start quickly, especially in a badly injured child. Other times, it may take a few days for brain swelling to show symptoms. Often the caregiver who shook the child puts the child to bed in the hope that symptoms will get better with rest. By the time the child gets to a doctor, the child needs urgent care. In some cases, the child may be in a coma before a caregiver seeks help.

Shaken children may also have other signs of abuse, such as broken bones, bruises, or burns.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 20, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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