Shaken Baby Syndrome

by Leslie Klipsch

Darryl Gibbs had never heard of Shaken Baby Syndrome until his youngest daughter, Cynthia, became a victim. He and his wife dropped their five-month-old off at a New York state certified childcare provider, run by a woman who had no criminal history, had worked in the public school system, and was his wife's best friend. When Mrs. Gibbs came back at the end of the day, Cynthia appeared to be sleeping on the couch. When she picked her up to take her home, the baby slumped in her arms, never to be revived.

"You watch all of this stuff on television, you see it in the news. It's heartbreaking and it's a tragedy, but you never ever think it could happen to you," Darryl Gibbs says from his home in New York. "We did everything responsibly as good parents. We made a right decision that had deadly consequences. That's something that we wear on our hearts everyday. If we would have made another decision, then Cynthia would have a life. She deserved to have a life but it was taken away by someone who couldn't control her frustrations."

Shaken Baby Syndrome is the result of trauma inflicted on a baby when it is violently shaken. When shaken, a baby's brain bounces back and forth inside the skull. The impact causes the brain to bruise, swell, and bleed. Many times Shaken Baby Syndrome shows little to no outward signs. The baby may appear tired and irritable, may exhibit labored breathing, convulsions, vomiting or bluish skin, but the damage is internal. In the case of Cynthia Gibbs, her parents saw no signs. The doctors, however, noticed that Cynthia was experiencing retinal hemorrhages. This, along with brain hemorrhages, damage to the spinal cord and neck, and fractured ribs are characteristic injuries of Shaken Baby Syndrome. The Gibbs agreed to an autopsy which confirmed that Cynthia had indeed been shaken. This began a grieving process punctuated by meetings with lawyers and court appearances. Months after Cynthia's death, her caregiver was convicted of manslaughter and is serving a 15-year sentence in a New York state prison.

Shaken Baby Syndrome typically affects babies between the ages of zero and six months. However, older babies can be victims as well, depending on the size of the baby and the size of the perpetrator. According to Mary Salisbury, Assistant Director of Education and Public Awareness at Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, just over half of the victims are boys. The thought behind this is the parental and societal expectation that a boy baby can be handled more roughly than a girl and that boys shouldn't cry. Perpetrators are more often young men. Salisbury says that "young men are not taught parenting skills as well and as often as young women are." Of course, women are capable of shaking a baby as well. However, it is less common and when it is a woman who does the shaking, it is typically a care giver rather than the mother. This was the case in the death of Cynthia Gibbs. Salisbury cites aggression and anger control as two main factors. "We don't think that there are terrible people out there who are looking to go out and shake a baby. It happens because people lose control."

There is sound advice available on what to do if you are at your breaking point when caring for an infant. Most commonly, we are told to place the baby in a safe place, like a crib, and walk away from the situation. You are then free to call for help. Call a neighbor, a relative, or the child's parent and admit that you are struggling. A baby is much better off crying in the crib than being subject to your frustration. It is widely agreed that the number one precipitating factor in Shaken Baby Syndrome is crying. The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome spokesperson, Amy Wicks, points out that "crying is a normal developmental phase. A baby may cry more than you ever thought it would. That doesn't mean that you are a bad parent or that you are doing something wrong." The center tries to reiterate this to new parents who may find themselves short on patience. In the long run, if an individual is easily frustrated when caring for an infant, there may be deeper anger management issues at the root of the problem. If such tendencies erupt while caring for a child, it may be a good opportunity to recognize the problem and seek counseling to help heal larger personal issues.

The nightmare of Shaken Baby Syndrome has lasting effects on parents. Besides extended hospitalization, a baby who has been shaken and is able to come home typically has long term effects that last the rest of the child's life. According to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome the outcome of being shaken varies with little rhyme or reason. According to Wicks, children who were shaken as babies often endure challenges such as learning disabilities, behavior disorders, impulse control issues, blindness, paralysis, and cerebral palsy. Approximately 25 percent of the 1200-1400 cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome per year in America end in death. However, Wicks also knows of a ten-year-old who was shaken as a baby and has made a full recovery. Another young woman who was shaken as an infant was blinded by the incident; however, she is on her way to graduating with honors from Stanford University.

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome provides on-line forums for families and helps put people into contact with local support groups. Oftentimes parents must deal with the fact that the abuse was caused by a friend or a member of their own family. Wicks points out, "because you are not likely to leave your child with someone that you don't trust, trust issues come about." There are often pointed fingers and legal action. Shaking a baby is child abuse and the trail that follows the incident is complicated, messy, and costly. Parents are also faced with intense grief or the challenge of caring for a child with a severe disability. There is also an uncertainty about the future that proves stressful for parents. Wicks says, "There is such a wide range of outcomes that it is really hard for parents of children who have been shaken to try to figure out what the future is going to bring. Even their child's own neurologist can't tell them. It depends on the child's will to fight and what type of services they're able to get them into."

Darryl Gibbs does not want anyone to feel as alone and overwhelmed as he did seven years ago. In 2001, he decided to bring attention to this form of abuse and started The Cynthia Gibbs Foundation. Besides raising awareness about Shaken Baby Syndrome, he works to provide support to families who have been touched by tragedy. The foundation provides counseling, financial support, victim advocacy, and accompaniment to court. Though his efforts mainly touch the New York Metropolitan Area, he hopes to expand his outreach and is willing to travel anywhere in the country to speak about the issue or provide support to families.
High profile cases such as the story of Kaleb Schwade, an infant boy who was recently shaken in Florida, catch the attention of the nation. There has been a recent increase in the amount of money given to organizations like the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome and in the amount of inquiries from people wanting to raise awareness in their own communities.

Typically, young mothers are the keepers of the information on Shaken Baby Syndrome. They are given pamphlets and lectures by doctors after giving birth and at routine appointments. However, because it is not typically a mother who shakes her baby, it is necessary for her to spread the word. Mothers can educate the men in their lives, whether it be fathers, step-fathers, boyfriends or brothers. Once privy to the information, mothers can pass it along to caregivers as well. Additionally, public health organizations are always open to volunteers who want to train others. You need not be a professional to be trained as a Shaken Baby Educator. In many states if you attend one training seminar, you gain access to basic information, pamphlets, power point presentations, and DVDs that you can take to local schools, churches, or community groups in the hopes of educating others about this type of abuse.

Mary Salisbury of Prevent Child Abuse Illinois calls for a movement. "I like to compare it to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). People know that you don't get into a car if you've been drinking. I want them to know that you don't shake a baby. It's a social norm that people need to know. It's a simple message: don't shake a baby."

Protect your child

I have held a screaming baby up in front of me, screaming on the inside, "Will you just be quiet!" and then I would hold her back to me and think how horrible to even have thought of shaking her...

If you feel frustrated, put the baby down in a safe place and walk away.

• Let your anger out in a safe way. Shake a rug, do dishes or laundry, scrub a floor, beat a pillow or just sit down and have a good cry. It is okay to feel frustrated - as long as you don't take it out on the baby.
• " Stop and think about why you feel so angry. Is it the child or is he just a convenient target for your anger?
• Sit or lie down, close your eyes, think of a pleasant place in your memory for several minutes.
• Call a friend, relative, or neighbor to talk about your frustration or see if someone can take over for awhile.
• Do something for yourself. Listen to soft music, exercise, take a shower or bath.
• Write down the ten best things about yourself. Write down the ten best things about your child.
• Remember that crying doesn't hurt a baby - shaking does.
Source: Prevent Child Abuse Illinois

Many websites have forums, classes, and free literature about Shaken Baby Syndrome. For more information check out:
• The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome
• The Epilepsy Association of Central Florida
• The Shaken Baby Alliance
• Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, click on "Shaken Baby"

Leslie Klipsch is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer. Before joining the ranks of motherhood, she taught high school English. She, her husband, and their children live in Chicago.

Copyright © Leslie Klipsch. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.