Picture this: It’s the middle of the night and you’re six weeks into motherhood. Your hormones are going haywire. You’re exhausted. Breastfeeding is painful and your newborn just won’t stop screaming. Out of sheer frustration, you grab your little one who’s red-faced and open-mouthed, and, without thinking, you shake her.
Nearly 50 percent of American adults don’t understand the serious danger of shaken baby syndrome. Shaking a newborn can cause brain damage and even result in death. According to Drs. Glade Curtis and Judith Schuler, authors of Your Baby’s First Year, most shaking incidents last less than 20 seconds—but include nearly 40 to 50 shakes. That’s enough to do serious harm to your little one’s brain.
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The warning signs
Symptoms of shaken baby syndrome vary from child to child, but if you notice any of these in your newborn, contact your pediatrician or 911 right away:
- Labored breathing
- Can’t focus eyes
- Unexplained changes in behavior
- Loss of appetite
- Uneven pupil size
Most cases of shaken baby syndrome happen to babies younger than 1 year old, though children as old as 5 can be victims too. Because newborns are still developing neurologically and have less padding and weaker muscles, they’re particularly susceptible to these head traumas. Newborns and young infants don’t yet have the muscles and strength necessary to control neck and head movement, so when they’re shaken, their brains can rattle against their skulls. The result may be internal bleeding, swelling, or bruising.
Ensuring baby’s safety
Shaken baby syndrome is tough to talk about and we all think it couldn’t possibly happen to us. But in those first months of motherhood when you and your partner are finding your parenting footing, it’s smart to have a plan in place to prevent such tragedies from taking place.
Because you will most likely be sleep deprived, hormonal, and maybe even overwhelmed, sit down with your partner to discuss how to care for yourselves while also meeting the needs of a potentially screaming baby.
- Know that it’s OK to get frustrated and even angry when you can’t calm your newborn. But also know that it’s OK to set your baby safely down in his or her crib and walk away while you compose yourself. It’s far better to let your baby cry for a few minutes than do something you’ll deeply regret.
- Ask for help. There’s no shame in letting friends and family know you’re overwhelmed and need a helping hand. Schedule a babysitter and get out of your house to take care of yourself. Go for a walk, get your hair cut, go to a yoga class—anything that will help you return refreshed and ready to offer nothing but comfort and love to your little one.
- Tag team. If you’re dealing with a colicky baby, split the calming duties with your partner so that at least one of you is always getting some rest.
The bottom line
It’s never OK to shake a baby. Doing so may result in permanent brain damage or even death. While it’s easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated as a new parent, sit down now and develop a strategy for caring for your newborn when you’re at your wit’s end. A little planning now will ensure your newborn’s safety later on, no matter how many tears—yours and hers—are involved.
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