Never Shake Your Baby
Your Pregnancy|October/November 2020
Never Shake Your Baby
One momentary lapse in judgement – like shaking your baby out of sheer frustration– can change his life forever.
Vanessa Papas

It’s 2am. You’re dog tired, and your ears are ringing from the incessant crying that's echoing in your head. The baby is awake. Again!

You’d never hurt your bundle of joy. But, for just a split second, you’d trade the world for a moment’s peace and quiet. It’s in these dark hours when even the most doting and loving parent can easily snap.

Abusive head trauma, commonly known as a shaken baby syndrome (SBS), is caused when an adult forcefully shakes a baby or toddler, often in an attempt to get them to stop crying. Because infants’ neck muscles aren’t well developed and provide little support for their heads, this violent movement pitches the brain back and forth within the skull, possibly causing life-threatening injuries.


While there are currently scant statistics regarding the number of SBS cases in South Africa, an extrapolation of overseas research suggests that we should be recording about 300 cases per year.

“South Africa scores highly on a number of risk factors for SBS,” writes Frances Mattes in a 2016 dissertation on the syndrome through the University of Cape Town.

“Poverty, violence and social isolation increase parents’ and caregivers’ levels of stress and frustration, known precipitants of SBS, putting them at greater risk for shaking their babies,” Frances writes.

The American Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome estimates that each year between 1 200 and 1 400 children are injured or killed by abusive head injuries in the United States.

The perpetrator is usually a caregiver or parent, with 65 to 90 percent being male.

The Teddy Bear Clinic’s Shaken and Abused Baby Initiative is said to see at least one case a month in the Johannesburg area alone. Younger children are at particular risk. Where there are special needs children, multiple siblings, or conditions such as colic or reflux, there’s an increased risk of SBS.


We don’t always realise just how harmful shaking a baby can be.

The late professor Lorna Jacklin, who used to be a consultant pediatrician and neuro-development specialist at Wits and a founding member of the Teddy Bear Clinic, dealt with a number of SBS cases.


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October/November 2020