Stopping baby deaths from shaking

Five infants died in Alaska in seven years after being shaken

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000

Where to find help for child abuse, teen parents

Shaken baby syndrome is hard to track because there is no international medical code for reporting it, said Russ Webb, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Roger Withington of the state Division of Family and Youth Services noted there is no computer code to access statistics about shaken baby syndrome. ``It's usually lumped in with assault or physical abuse,'' Withington said.

In Alaska, overall reports of child neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse and mental injury have all increased since 1989. However, ``The Health of Our People,'' a 1998 Southeast Regional Health Consortium report, suggests the increase may not be in actual instances of abuse, but in reporting.

``This increase may be due to an increased awareness of the problem and the willingness of more individuals to report suspected cases of child harm,'' the report said.

To report abuse, call 911 if it's life threatening.

Otherwise, report abuse to the state Division of Family and Youth Services, 465-1650, or 1-800-478-4444; the Alaska State Troopers detachment, 465-4000; the Juneau Police Department, 586-2780; or the AWARE Crisis Line, 586-1090.

To talk anonymously to someone about child abuse or how to report it, dial Childhelp USA, at 800-422-4453, extension 1.

Abusers themselves may seek help from Juneau Mental Health Center, 463-3008. Take parenting classes through Catholic Community Service, 463-6145. Or join Parents Anonymous, 790-4102.

Teens may call the Juneau Teen Health Center, 463-1940, where nurses and counselors are available to help work through the physical and emotional scars of abuse. Services are free and confidential.

Teen parents seeking respite from the care of their children should consult the Youth Yellow Pages, or dial up, and click on Youth Yellow Pages.

Two or three times a month, Rosita Tuiaana shows her clients at Ketchikan's WISH shelter a video about shaken baby syndrome.

WISH is a shelter for battered women and children. As WISH's children's program coordinator, Tuiaana hasn't seen any cases of shaken baby syndrome - and she doesn't want to. Her goal is prevention.

``A lot of the women don't even know about this,'' she said. ``I tell them to be very careful - not to shake the baby because it could lead to blindness or even kill the baby.''

From 1991 to 1998 there were five identifiable instances of shaken baby syndrome involving hospital admissions in Alaska, said Russell Webb, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Two of these were fatal - one in 1995 and one in 1997. Cases where the child died that did not include hospital admissions would not be counted among this handful.

``Fortunately,'' Webb said, ``the intentional cases of shaken baby syndrome are very few, and by education we can avoid the unintentional (cases).''

Parents who very gently throw their children up in the air and play with them probably won't hurt them, said pediatrician Brad Gessner of Anchorage's Neighborhood Health Center. But rough shaking or ``banging their heads against the wall'' is something else, Gessner said. Blood vessels are severed; the brain swells and bleeds.

In shaken baby syndrome, damage occurs because infant neck muscles are very weak, and because a child's brain is insufficiently anchored, said Stacey Noem, children's program coordinator with the Sitka Against Family Violence shelter.

``Until age three, the membrane that supports the brain (against falls, abuse and concussion) isn't really developed,'' Noem said.

If shaking doesn't actually kill, it can render parts of the brain dead. It can sever the neuro-pathways from one part of the brain to another. ``The detriment is overwhelming,'' Noem added.

To her clients, Noem dispenses an American Academy of Pediatrics' card about shaking. The card says: ``Hard shaking can cause brain damage, blindness, hearing loss, learning problems, seizure disorders, cerebral palsy, paralysis or death. Never hold or pick up a baby when you feel angry.''

Crying is the most common reason babies are shaken, said Gessner.

``But,'' he added, ``the vast majority of parents whose babies are crying don't shake them. When shaking occurs, usually other factors are involved, such as a lot of anger in the family or drugs in the household.''

Among teen parents, he said, there is a higher incidence of the syndrome because immature teens ``don't have the internal discipline to tolerate that stress for very long.''

The shaker is not necessarily the baby's parent, said Pam Muth, chief of maternal, child and family health with the state Division of Public Health. ``It may be a babysitter, a new boyfriend - and the stress just tips them over the edge.''

What are safe actions to take when a baby has been crying for what seems like hours?

Experts recommend: Feeding the baby slowly; burping the baby often; offering a pacifier; checking the diaper and changing it, if needed; holding the baby against your chest and walking or rocking; taking the baby for a ride in a stroller or car; singing to the baby; or playing soft music.

If all those things don't work, wrap the baby snugly in a soft blanket. Put the baby in a safe place in a quiet, dark room. Close the door and take a break.

Copies of ``Crying. . . What Should I Do?'' are available from the Section of Maternal, Child and Family Health in Anchorage; call 800-799-7570.

This is the second in a four-part series of Empire articles running Mondays this month. Other topics are: April 17, preventing abuse; and April 24, resources for parents.

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