The Dangers of Abusive Head Trauma


Babies cry. A lot. Sometimes, it can be frustrating when you are caring for a baby who won’t settle down. But there’s danger in taking that frustration out on the baby. Abusive Head Trauma (AHT), or Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), can be caused by dropping, throwing, or shaking a child, or hitting his head directly. The thing about abusive head trauma is that it’s 100% preventable. Babies don’t receive brain trauma from normal play, such as bouncing on your knee, rough play, or even minor falls.

Shaking a baby damages his brain

Because an infant’s neck muscles are not very strong yet, children under 12 months comprise the largest percentage of victims of abusive head trauma, but toddlers up to age 5 can be harmed by forceful shaking. When this happens, the brain violently hits the inside of the skull, causing broken blood vessels, nerve damage, bleeding, bruising, and swelling. Permanent brain damage can occur from shaking a baby, even if the child seems fine directly after. 25% of babies who are violently shaken die, and those who survive may experience blindness, hearing loss, seizures, developmental delays, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and other intellectual disabilities that are perpetual.

Signs of Abusive Head Trauma

Simply put, AHT is child abuse. Some home and family situations put baby at higher risk for receiving AHT. New parents may have unrealistic expectations about what it’s like having a new baby around. Others may struggle with substance abuse, depression, or have a history of domestic violence. While not always obvious directly after the trauma, children may have symptoms such as:

  • Irritability
  • Struggles breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Coma
  • Poor eating
  • Pale or blue skin
  • Seizures

What are some strategies for preventing Shaken Baby Syndrome?

Since parents and other caregivers are the cause of SBS, it’s important to learn how to cope with the stress of caring for a child in a way that is not harmful to the baby. It’s never all right to shake a baby. If you need to lay a crying baby in his crib (always on his back) for a few minutes and take a short break, do it. To soothe a crying baby, you can try to:

  1. Make sure all his needs are met – he’s fed, changed, and has a normal temperature.
  2. Sing or talk to the baby.
  3. Offer a toy that makes sounds or a pacifier.
  4. Change the scenery. Take baby for a ride in the car or a walk in the stroller.
  5. Give baby a warm, soothing bath.
  6. Rub or pat his back.
  7. Swing baby gently in an infant swing or rock in a comfortable chair.
  8. Call a family member or friend to care for the baby to give you a break, even if it’s just 30 minutes.

Babies are individuals and respond differently to calming methods. If nothing seems to be working, you can call your baby’s doctor; perhaps he or she can help you check for signs of illness. Sometimes babies can have something physically wrong, such as GERD or colic, that causes fussiness.

Make sure all caregivers – a child care facility, family member, older sibling, or friend – know about AHT and that a baby should never be shaken before leaving your baby in their care. It’s hard to listen to a baby cry, especially for long periods of time. But you must stay in control of your anger and frustration and keep your baby safe.

What are some ways you have learned to cope with the stress of caring for a child? Tell us in the comments below!


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