Saving Babies from Shaking

By Blake, Ann; Michael, Jennifer | Children's Voice, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

Saving Babies from Shaking


Blake, Ann, Michael, Jennifer, Children's Voice


Millions of people become new parents each year and are seldom prepared for the stress of the job. Crying, late-night feedings, spit-up on that new outfit, and changing smelly diapers day after day can, for some, escalate to uncontrollable frustration and aggravation.

Child advocate George Lithco likens it to the effects of war. "If you read about a lot of the physical symptoms people in combat have, it's something that parents can relate to-stress, trauma, exhaustion."

But as the old adage goes, "kids will be kids." They're simply exhibiting age-appropriate behavior. Children too often bear the brunt of parental frustration, and in just a few seconds, this frustration can be fatal for the child.

Eight children a day die or are severely injured by something that is 100% preventable: Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a severe head injury caused by violently shaking an infant or child for as little as five seconds. It is the leading cause of child abuse deaths in the United States. SBS will afflict an estimated 1,200-1,400 children this year.

"People lose control," says Lithco, whose 11-month-old son was killed in 2000 after being shaken by a 51-year-old caregiver who was having a bad day. "People think it's about crying. Though that's the most frequent precipitator, it's about self-control. It's a flux of things.

"Most cases entail some prolonged crying with children under 1 year old," Lithco explains, "and the parent, who is under a lot of stress, loses control, goes into some sort of rage mode, and does something really violent in a very short amount of time. In most cases, at the time, parents don't even know they're doing it."

Most parents and caregivers prosecuted in shaking incidents have no record of abusive behavior, Lithco says. "You look at some of these cases, and the perpetrators are doctors, lawyers, police officers-and...everybody [who knows the perpetrator] is saying, 'I can't believe it!'"

The Fatal Consequences of a Bad Day

Reflecting on his own tragedy, Lithco says, "If I were hiring a nanny today, we wouldn't have made a different choice. There's nothing about her we missed, other than having a conversation with her in which we gave her permission to say, 'It's a bad day, I just can't do it tonight.' We all have bad days, and we should only do what we're prepared to do. Every parent gets up some mornings and says, ? just can't do this.'"

According to newspaper accounts, the night Lithco's son, Skipper, was fatally injured, his nanny was also looking after her own grandson and a third child. She was depressed from a recent divorce, and Skipper was cranky from teething. Skipper spit up while being fed, and the nanny picked him up from his high chair and shook him for only a few seconds. She later pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless manslaughter and was sentenced to 3-10 years in prison.

SBS is a type of whiplash that can have devastating consequences. Infants are highly vulnerable to this kind of force because their brains are softer, their neck muscles and ligaments are weak and not fully developed, and their heads are large and heavy in proportion to the rest of their bodies. When a baby is shaken, even only for a moment, it can cause the brain to rattle around inside the skull and pull apart. In educating parents, caregivers, and teenagers about SBS, the extent of the injury is often graphically demonstrated by placing an egg in a jar and shaking the jar for a few moments until the egg cracks and the yolk splashes everywhere.

For those who survive it, the consequences of this kind of injury can be tragic. In addition to acute brain damage that requires constant assistance for the rest of their lives, survivors of SBS often suffer blindness due to retinal hemorrhaging, and paralysis because of damage to the spine.

"In many cases, by the time [I see them]...their fate is largely sealed," explains Dr. Kent Hymel, Director of the Forensic Assessment and Consultation Team at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children in Virginia. …

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