Children's Hospital Colorado

Facts About Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS)

Child abuse has been the leading cause of trauma deaths for children admitted to Children's Hospital Colorado every year since 2003. The hospital typically admits children each month with signs of shaken baby syndrome (SBS). SBS is a serious head injury that occurs when an infant or toddler is severely or violently shaken. This shaking often leads to brain damage, hearing loss, blindness, speech or learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, developmental disabilities or even death.

Our goal is to prevent shaken baby syndrome

We believe that to dramatically impact this issue and reduce the problem, we must better educate our communities. Child abuse and SBS are preventable, and this program gives us a platform to take action.

Shaking a baby is child abuse

No one likes to think about a child being hurt by an adult caregiver, but it does happen. In fact, SBS is one of the leading causes of trauma death in Colorado children under the age of two. Educating parents and caregivers about the dangers of shaking a baby and providing alternatives for managing the frustrations they may feel when caring for a crying baby is key to prevention.

Remember, no matter how frustrated you may become, never shake a baby.

What is shaken baby syndrome (SBS)?

SBS is the diagnosis given to the many serious and sometimes fatal, injuries and permanent disabilities that can occur when infants or young children are violently shaken or their heads are impacted. Not only is it a serious type of head injury, it is also a serious form of child abuse.

Babies' brains are very fragile and their neck muscles are not strong; therefore, when they are shaken, their heads flop back and forth, causing the brain to slam against the inside of the skull. This causes the blood vessels to tear and blood to collect inside the baby's skull, causing irreparable damage to the brain.

SBS occurs most frequently in infants younger than six months old, but older children can receive severe injuries from shaking.

In America last year, more than 1,200 children were treated for SBS. Of these tiny victims, 20% died as a result of their injuries. The rest may have lifelong complications.

What happens when a baby is shaken?

Shaking a baby causes severe injury to the baby's fragile brain. In fact, 20% of shaken babies die and 80% of shaken babies may have serious injuries and long-term disabilities, including:

  • Brain damage
  • Blindness
  • Deafness or hearing loss
  • Spinal injury/paralysis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Seizures
  • Severe motor dysfunction
  • Intellectual disability
  • Speech or learning disabilities

Why would someone shake a baby?

SBS can happen when a parent or caregiver gets frustrated and loses control, even just for a moment. This often happens when the baby gets fussy and cries for extended periods of time.

The number-one reason given for shaking a baby is, "I just wanted the crying to stop." Shaking usually occurs when parents, babysitters or other caregivers become frustrated and lose control because of persistent crying.

For tips on calming a crying baby, see our soothing tips.

What are the signs and symptoms of SBS?

A victim of SBS may show one or all of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Poor sucking or swallowing
  • Poor feeding or eating
  • Vomiting
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Extreme irritability
  • No smiling or vocalization
  • Seizures
  • Lethargy or semi-consciousness (difficulty staying awake)
  • Rigidity
  • Inability to lift head
  • Tremors (shakiness)

What should I do if I think my baby has been shaken?

Get immediate medical attention for your baby if you or a caregiver has shaken your baby, or if you suspect that your baby has been shaken. Call 911 or your child's doctor, or take your baby to the nearest emergency department.

If your baby's brain is damaged or bleeding from severe shaking, it will only get worse without medical treatment. Immediate treatment may save your child's life and prevent serious permanent damage and health problems from developing.

Talk to a doctor

Tell medical personnel that you think or know that the baby has been shaken. A doctor who is not aware that a child has been shaken may assume the baby is vomiting or having trouble breathing because of an illness. Mild symptoms of SBS are similar to symptoms of infant colic, feeding problems and fussiness. The physician should have complete information so that he or she can treat your child properly. Without this knowledge, the doctor may spend precious time looking for other causes of illness.

Many incidents of SBS are not reported out of fear. Don't let embarrassment, guilt or fear get in the way of your child's health or life.