Shaking is not the way to calm a crying infant

November 30, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Just outside my office at The Herald-Mail is a counter piled with newspapers from the last several months, set up so that staffers can look for an ad or a story without using our computerized archive system.

It's a gathering place where editors and reporters sometimes discuss what they're working on. On Thursday morning, the discussion turned to the trial of 21-year-old Floyd Bingaman III, accused of killing a 4-month-old baby in January by violently shaking the child.

One of the participants in Thursday's discussion asked why any 20-year-old wouldn't know it is dangerous to shake an infant.

Why? Because they haven't been told often enough.

One of my failings as a journalist is to believe that once I've written about a subject then the public is knowledgeable.

Unless, of course, they didn't read the paper that day. Or they did read it, but skipped that column. Or because months later, the message of a column that took five minutes to read didn't stick in their heads for more than a few days.


I've been there ? alone with an infant crying for what seemed like hours, unable to tell me why. It is most frustrating, but shaking an infant will almost certainly result in serious injury.

I first wrote about that grim possibility in 1997, during the case of Louise Woodward, the 19-year-old British au pair accused of shaking an 8-month-old infant to death.

At the time, I knew very little about shaken baby syndrome, so I spoke to Dr. Lavdena Orr, then director of the Child Abuse Team at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

In most cases, she told me, the condition is difficult to diagnose because of the way that the injuries take place.

Imagine for a moment, she said, that the linings of the human brain are like the skin of an orange. First there's a hard outer layer like the orange's outer covering. Underneath that is another layer, like the white that adheres to the inside of the orange peel. Finally, there's a third layer, which is almost invisible.

Imagine the blood vessels running up through these layers, like an immensely tall tree might run through several layers of low-lying clouds. When the shaking occurs, Dr. Orr said, it's not the bony ridges inside the skull that damage the brain, but the breaking of these vessels. When that happens, blood that should be circulating all through the body begins to pool up in the brain, eventually causing severe damage and death.

Infants are particularly susceptible to this injury because their heads are disproportionately large and because their neck muscles haven't developed to the point where they can hold their heads steady without help.

A baby should never be shaken, Dr. Orr said, because there's no way of telling which child's blood vessels are so fragile than even a slight trauma might cause them to break and bleed.

In January, after Bingaman was charged, I spoke to Amy Wicks of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Wicks said that 1,300 to 1,400 children per year are taken for treatment after being shaken. Twenty-five percent of those children will die and of those who survive, 80 percent will have permanent brain damage.

The center developed a program to educate new parents on things I wish I'd known, such as "all babies go through stages of crying and that healthy babies cry more and more each day as they develop."

Some of those facts are shared in Washington County Hospital's "baby basics" class. Parents are told not to react to a crying baby out of frustration, stress or fatigue.

If that doesn't work, parents are advised to ask someone they trust to take over for a while.

It is not enough, center officials say, to tell someone who cares for your child not to shake it. You need to give them a plan that includes permission to put a child who won't stop crying in a crib, if all of his or her other needs have been met.

For more, visit the center's Web site at

Bob Maginnis is the
editorial page editor of
The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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