What is “shaken baby syndrome”?

Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), otherwise known as “Abusive Head Trauma,” is a severe, non-accidental brain injury to an infant. It is often the result of an adult caregiver reacting to frustrations that arise from taking care of an inconsolable, crying infant, and forcibly shaking the baby (hence its name). SBS causes permanent brain injury that often leads to long-term disability or even death.

A baby’s head is disproportionately large compared to the rest of his body, and his neck muscles are not yet strong enough to support the weight of the head, which can be 25 percent of his total body weight. In addition, a baby’s brain is still developing and is more susceptible to injury; blood vessels around the brain of an infant are more likely to tear compared to those of an older child or adult. When a baby is shaken, his head moves within the skull, tearing blood vessels and injuring or destroying brain tissue. Blood can pool in the skull, raising pressure and likely causing additional brain damage. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), infants under 6 months of age who cry excessively, are colicky, or who seem to need extra attention are at increased risk for SBS. Additional risk factors include male infants, premature and very low birth weight infants, and children with disabilities. 

Approximately 1,300 U.S. children experience severe or fatal head trauma from child abuse every year. In most cases of SBS, it is often the parent or caregiver who has unrealistic expectations concerning the realities of caring for a baby or young child. Those expectations coupled with sleep deprivation and stress may cause uninformed parents or caregivers to shake the baby. All parents and caregivers need to learn to never shake a baby. Some tips for coping with a newborn baby include:

  • Learn about normal development in young babies and set reasonable expectations. 
  • Learn what babies’ cries mean. 
  • Build a support system and call upon a partner, friend, or family member when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. 
  • Learn other ways to cope with frustration and, if no one else is available to care for your baby, put the baby in a safe place (a crib, a play yard) for a few minutes, and take a short break to calm down. 
  • Find out about community resources or support groups. Your baby’s health care provider may suggest home visiting programs, early intervention services, and educational programs. 

For more information about SBS, visit the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Last updated June 9, 2020

Suggested Reads