Hospitals in 17 Counties Join Forces to Prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome

April 25, 2001

A new program starting in Rochester and the Finger Lakes region aims to decrease the incidence of shaken baby syndrome and directly educate parents about the potentially devastating effects of mishandling a baby.

The Shaken Baby Education Project, a joint effort between Children's Hospital at Strong and Children's Hospital of Buffalo, was started in Western New York in 1998 by neurosurgeon Mark Dias, M.D. Since its inception, there have been only three reported cases of shaken baby syndrome in the Buffalo region. Sixteen would be normally expected.

Shaking a baby is a serious, oftentimes fatal form of child abuse most commonly seen in children who haven't reached their second birthday.

"By expanding this program to Rochester and the Finger Lakes region, we're making this a truly regional effort," says Linda Barthauer, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Hospital at Strong. "Babies are vulnerable and they need our love and protection. They should not bear the brunt of our anger and frustration."

Nearly all the hospitals in Rochester and the Finger Lakes region are participating in the program, providing educational materials - including a handout from the American Academy of Pediatrics and a seven-minute video - to new parents before their baby is discharged. A nurse also reviews with parents topics such as the medical consequences of shaking; the importance of positive outlets to vent anger; and the importance of sharing information about shaken baby syndrome with all caregivers.

Parents are asked to voluntarily sign a statement acknowledging that they received, read, and understood the information. They are also asked to voluntarily provide a phone number where study coordinators may call them nine months later to ask a few questions regarding their recollection of the information they received when their baby was born.

"I think one of the reasons the program has been successful is because people feel more accountable when they're asked to sign a sheet of paper," says Barthauer, who is leading the program's expansion locally.

Although all of the information is confidential, families may refuse to participate in this project without compromising the high-quality care they and their baby receive. The results from this study will be presented at scientific meetings, but no identifying information about any individual will be disclosed.

"By expanding this program, we'll build a data set that shows whether this program truly works in reducing the number of shaken babies," Barthauer says. "If it does, then we can be confident in recommending it to other areas of the country."

The most common trigger for an episode of shaken baby syndrome is when a baby cries for prolonged periods of time.

"Babies cry," says Barthauer, a mother of four. "It's their way of talking. They cry to let us know they are hungry, tired, need to be changed, or simply aren't feeling well."

"Sometimes we have no idea why they are crying and nothing seems to make it stop," Barthauer adds. "A parent or other caretaker, stressed by work, household activities, or financial concerns, may find that a crying infant feels like more than they can handle. In a momentary lapse of judgment, the caregiver may shake the child."

Unfortunately, experts say, such a lapse may be enough to inflict permanent damage. Shaking a baby can cause serious injuries, affecting the brain and the eyes. Long-term complications include development delay, reduced motor skills, blindness, and seizures. Some babies die after being shaken.

For many reasons, the true incidence of shaken baby syndrome is difficult to ascertain. It has been suggested that the number of infants identified with shaken baby syndrome is the tip of the iceberg."

"Although this is not the most common type of abuse, it can be most devastating to a child and family," says Jeff Rideout, a social worker at Children's Hospital at Strong and a member of the Shaken Baby Education Project team.

The goals of the Shaken Baby Education Project are consistent with Strong Health's Project Believe, an effort to make Rochester America's healthiest community by 2020. The Shaken Baby Education Project is funded by a grant from the William B. Hoyt Memorial Children and Family Fund.

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