I am about to start teaching a basic class about parenthood to unwed, teenage mothers who are choosing to keep their babies. What do they — and all new parents and caregivers, for that matter — need to know about Shaken Baby Syndrome?
That is simple: NEVER EVER SHAKE, RATTLE, OR ROLL a newborn or infant.
The head of an infant is much bigger proportionately than it is in an adult so it is heavier, the neck is weaker, and the bones are not well formed, which makes a baby’s head more likely to flop back and forth excessively. This action can cause the brain to rock inside the head and bruise the brain on the inside of the skull. It can also tear the delicate blood vessels.
I like to compare the baby’s brain to that of a delicate piece of electronic equipment. Most teenagers and young adults these days have cellphones, Blackberries, or iphones so they can understand the analogy. They have learned to treat these devices carefully since, if dropped, they often break and stop working. So, in simple terms, teenaged mothers, or any parent, should treat an infant like a delicate piece of electronic equipment. That means no dropping, no shaking, no leaving it in water. Feed the baby regularly just like one has to recharge the piece of equipment and let the baby get sleep just like the equipment works better if it is allowed to be turned off now and then so it can reset its parameters and function better.
The other really important thing to teach new mothers-to-be is to ask for help if they feel overwhelmed. If no one can come right away to help, the parent should gently put the baby in the crib on its back, ensure that it’s safe and there is nothing small that it can choke on, and then walk away and wait for the help to come. Most new parents get frustrated when a baby won’t stop crying, but taking a break or asking for help is crucial so frustration levels don’t reach a point where something unthinkable like shaking the baby occurs.
Finally, give your mothers-to-be a helpline number (1-800-4-A-Child) to call. Something that is clearly written and can be stuck to the phone, attached to the refrigerator door, or placed somewhere that it can be easily seen and used.
Educating new parents or parents-to-be about what can happen to a baby if shaken — not just in the moment but for the rest of the child’s life — will speak volumes.
Dr. Jane Gillett was a neurologist certified by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in both pediatric and adult neurology. She created and developed the Pediatric Acquired Brain Injury Community Outreach Program, Children’s Hospital of Western Ontario. She died in 2011.