Infants or small children that are violently shaken, or shaken with their heads being hit against some object can be severely hurt, or killed. The injuries which result from this abuse are known as shaken baby syndrome.


The neck muscles of young children, especially babies, are not strong enough to fully support their heavy heads. Shaking motions also cause their fragile brains move back and forth within their skulls. These types of movement can tear small blood vessels. This causes serious injury and bleeding to the brain and eyes. Shaken baby syndrome usually happens when a parent or other caregiver becomes angry or frustrated, often because the baby will not stop crying.

Brain Bruised from Whiplash—Similar Effect in Shaken Baby Syndrome

Whiplash brain
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Risk Factors

The following factors increase the chance of a shaking injury:

  • History of domestic or child abuse within the family
  • History of drug and/or alcohol abuse within the family
  • Shaking a baby, even for a few seconds
  • History of stress or social difficulties in the family
  • Boys are more likely to be abused in this way than girls


The severity of injury depends on the length of time the baby is shaken and how hard he or she is hit. Injuries caused by shaking are often extremely serious and can include:

Symptoms depend on the severity of injury. . Injuries caused by shaking can include:

  • Failure to thrive
  • Poor feeding or vomiting
  • Seizures or spasms
  • Weakness
  • Semi-consciousness or loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dilated or unresponsive pupils
  • Swollen head
  • Lethargy or irritability

In general, 1/3 die, 1/3 have major neurologic damage, and 1/3 survive in good condition.Of all the children with shaken baby syndrome, only 1/3 survive in good condition. Of the others, ½ (1/3 of the total) die, and ½ have major neurologic damage The severity of injury depends on the length of time the baby is shaken and severity of the shaking Injuries caused by shaking can include:

In many cases, there are no bruises or other signs of injury to the child’s head or body. Visible injuries may include:

  • Bruising of the part of the body used as a "handle" for shaking
  • Fractures of the arm bones, leg bones, and/or ribs


If you or your caregiver severely or violently shake your baby because of anger or frustration, the most important step is to get medical care right away. Immediately take your child to your pediatrician or an emergency room because early medical care may lessen some kinds of brain injuries caused by this problem. Don't let embarrassment, guilt, or fear get in the way of protecting your child's health or life.

Your doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history, and will perform a physical examination. Your child will probably be referred to other doctors (a neurologist or neurosurgeon) who specialize in brain injuries. The following tests will be used by the doctors to learn the extent of the child’s injuries and the parts of the body that are involved:

  • CT scan—a procedure that makes detailed computer pictures of the brain. This procedure is also called computed tomography or computerized axial tomography. This test can be used to detect bleeding or swelling.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)—a procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed pictures of the brain. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI). This test can be used to determine the extent of the injury.
  • Lab tests include blood work to look for evidence of bleeding and to see if the blood clots normally.
  • An eye evaluation by a qualified ophthalmologist.
  • X-rays of the long bones to check for new or healing fractures (other signs of abuse).


Treatment options include:

  • Supportive care with treatment of elevated pressure in the head as needed.
  • Anti-seizure medications may be prescribed.
  • Surgery may be needed to remove blood on the brain.
  • If the baby survives his or her injuries, physical recovery can take months to years, and in many cases the child does not develop normally. In general, the sooner your child’s rehabilitation starts, the better he or she will do over time.
  • During rehabilitation, the child and family work with a team of doctors, nurses, and other professionals. This team includes rehabilitation therapists to help your child develop motor skills like eating and walking. Involvement of a family therapist is very important to help the family with emotional issues related to the child’s injury.

If your baby is diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome, follow your doctor's instructions.


It is important to talk to anyone caring for your baby about the dangers of shaking and how it can be prevented. Taking care of a crying baby can be very frustrating. If you have tried to calm your crying child but feel like nothing is working, it's important to stay in control of your temper to keep from hurting your baby or child out of frustration. If you feel you might lose control, take the following steps:

  • Take a deep breath and count to 10.
  • Take time out and let your baby cry alone.
  • Call someone close to you for emotional support.
  • Call your baby’s doctor. There may be a medical reason why your child is crying.