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.