Shaken Baby Syndrome Frequently Asked Questions

We still have much to learn about Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). The answers to the questions below were provided by Jacy Showers, EdD and, in some instances, are only her opinions.

Q. How many cases of SBS are there?

A. No one knows for sure because, in the past, child physical abuse statistics have not included a category for Abusive Head Trauma, including SBS. Recent estimates are that at least 1200-1500 cases are seen annually in hospital emergency departments. However, research suggests that many SBS cases are missed, especially those in which initial symptoms are not severe.

Q. How serious is the problem of SBS?

A. Very serious, because outcomes for victims of SBS often include death or lifelong disabilities. In addition, long-term consequences to family members are devastating. Parents, grandparents, siblings and other relatives often feel blamed, isolated, and frustrated about a lack of justice and inability to access needed services.

Q. Why do people shake babies?

A. People who shake babies are unable to control their own anger and frustration. Often, shaking results from the inability of an adult to cope with a crying infant. Sometimes shaking results from loss of anger control regarding toilet-training issues, feeding difficulties, or interrupted television viewing.

Q. Who shakes babies and young children?

A. Most studies indicate that two-thirds to three-quarters of the perpetrators are males, often biological fathers of the victims, or boyfriends of the victims' mothers. The age of perpetrators in reported cases ranges from 11 to 68 years, although the most common age is the early 20's. No one is immune from shaking a baby; these cases occur in families of various ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and family composition.

Q. How much force does it take to cause SBS injuries?

A. According to researchers who have conducted studies with biomechanical models, it takes the force equivalent to a fall from the second story of a building or a serious automobile accident. It is possible that the amount of force needed varies by the individual child; therefore, the best policy is not to shake any child for any reason.

Q. What happens to people who shake babies and kill or brain damage them?

A. More cases are being prosecuted than in the past, although the types of charges filed and the outcomes of cases vary greatly by jurisdiction. Increasingly, cases are being charged under special statutes regarding killing or injuring a child under 12 years of age, or as first degree murder. Frequently, cases result in plea bargains to lesser charges. In some cases, defendants are acquitted. In cases where prosecution is successful, sentencing is very inconsistent and ranges from probation to the death penalty.

Q. What good does prevention of SBS do?

A. Knowledge is power. Evaluation feedback from people who have received SBS prevention material has been overwhelmingly positive, and more than 90% recommend that others receive it. Although prevention will not stop all shaking incidents, response from the public indicates that knowledge about the dangers of shaking, and about the specific outcomes that can result, will reduce the risk of shaking. In addition, education of people of all ages ensures a better informed jury pool for cases that are prosecuted. Finally, documentation that a defendant has received SBS information can be used in the prosecution of a case to dispute lack of knowledge or intent.

Q. How old must a child be before it is safe to shake him or her?

A. There are documented cases of adults who have suffered injuries from shaking; therefore, it should never be considered safe to shake a child.

Q. Is it safe to put a baby in a swing, a backpack for jogging, or a baby carrier for biking?

A. The important thing is that the baby's neck and head are supported at all times. If people are in doubt about what is safe, it is better to err in the direction of the safety of the child and wait until he or she is older.

Q. What is the difference between Shaken Baby Syndrome and Shaken Impact Syndrome?

A. The term Shaken Baby Syndrome is often used to refer to shaking both with and without impact. Shaken Impact Syndrome specifically refers to cases in which children are both shaken and suffer and impact to the head, often when thrown down at the end of shaking. Impact occurs often in SBS cases, although many physicians believe that shaking alone is sufficient to cause injury to a child.