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Shaken Baby Syndrome - Topic Overview

What are the symptoms? continued...

A child who has been shaken or thrown may also have other signs of abuse, such as broken bones, bruises, or burns.

Symptoms can start quickly, especially in a badly injured child. Other times, it may take a few days for brain swelling to cause symptoms.

Sometimes caregivers who harm a child will put the child to bed. They may hope that symptoms will get better with rest. By the time the child gets to a doctor, the child may need urgent care. In some cases, the child may be in a coma before a caregiver seeks help.

How is shaken baby syndrome diagnosed?

Shaken baby syndrome can be hard to detect because often there aren't clear signs of abuse. Instead, a baby may have vague symptoms, such as vomiting or a poor appetite. At first these symptoms may seem related to an infection, such as the flu or a kidney infection. Sadly, shaken baby syndrome may not be discovered until repeated abuse or more severe harm occurs.

To confirm a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome, a doctor will:

  • Ask about the child's medical history, including when changes in behavior began.
  • Do a physical exam to look for signs of injury and increased blood pressure.
  • Do imaging tests such as a CT scan or an MRI to look for bleeding or other injury in the brain.
  • Take X-rays to check for broken bones.

A doctor may also do tests to rule out other possible causes of the child's symptoms. For example, a lumbar puncture checks the spinal fluid for signs of meningitis. Blood tests may be done to check for internal injuries or to rule out other conditions, such as rare blood disorders.

A doctor who suspects shaken baby syndrome must report it to the local child welfare office and police.

How is it treated?

A child with shaken baby syndrome needs to be in the hospital, sometimes in an intensive care unit (ICU). Oxygen therapy may be used to help the child breathe. Doctors may give the child medicine to help ease brain swelling. Sometimes a cooling mattress will help lower the child's body temperature and reduce brain swelling.

Depending on the symptoms, doctors may try seizure medicine, physical therapy, or other treatments. A child who has severe bleeding in the brain may need surgery.

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