By Laurie A. Kaiser
Mark and Kathy Dittman know far too much about shaken baby syndrome. In 1998, the sitter they hired to watch their 2–year-old daughter Maggie while they worked shook the little girl so violently she died. Although the sitter never admitted to the abuse, she was convicted of reckless injury to a child and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“It’s never a stranger who does this. It’s someone charged with caring for the child – a parent or sitter who loses control,” says Mark Dittman, of Harlingen, who now works with his wife to protect other families from this tragedy through education and legislative changes.
“Not everyone who shakes a child is a criminal, but they all turn into one,” he says.
“It’s much better prevented. Once it happens, you are left with a dead or severely disabled child.”
Indeed. Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is the most common cause of abuse-related death for small children, according to James Lukefahr, M.D., a pediatrician specializing in child abuse who recently joined the staff of San Antonio’s Center for Miracles. The Christus Santa Rosa Hospital-based facility evaluates and treats children Child Protective Services suspects have been abused.
Why It’s a Danger
In Texas, about 150 infants and children a year die after being shaken, according to Lukefahr. Throughout the country, it’s estimated that 1,300 children suffer severe shaking-related head trauma at the hands of parents or caregivers each year, and almost one-quarter of them die. The rest are left with horrific injuries that include brain damage, cerebral palsy, paralysis, deafness and blindness.
The life-changing injuries can happen in as little as five seconds.When a baby is shaken, the head whips back and forth and causes the brain to slam against the inside of the skull. A child is most susceptible in the first two years of life.
“Small children’s brains are different than brains in older children or adults” Lukefahr says. “There is not as much protection if they are handled roughly and their heads are bounced around. We’re not talking about jiggling a baby on your knee. We’re looking at severe, violent shaking.”
How it Happens
Prolonged crying often triggers the abuse. And people who aren’t used to crying, who get easily frustrated, are the most likely to inflict this type of harm. “Sometimes, it’s very difficult to figure out what a baby needs,” Lukefahr says.
About three-quarters of SBS cases involve parents or family members. Most of the perpetrators are men. One common scenario is a man taking care of his girlfriend’s baby or toddler, who may or may not be his biological child, while she’s at work.
“They often don’t have the skills or the tools to care for children,” says Maggie’s mother, Kathy Dittman. “When they are left in that situation with a frustrating, crying child, it can be a recipe for disaster.”
But it’s not always easy to predict who poses a risk to a child.
In the Dittman’s case, they hired a woman from their small community who had no criminal record and came recommended.
“We had no negative ideas about her,” Kathy Dittman says. “It was pretty shocking to us.”
Through the Shaken Baby Alliance where she served as the immediate past president, Kathy Dittman got to know other families who suffered the same tragedy. “It’s uncanny how similar the situations are,” she says. For example, she says, people who injure a child use the same dozen excuses, including he fell off the bed, I dropped him accidentally.”
Educating New Parents
In September of 2005, a bill introduced by Texas Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville became law. It requires hospitals and birthing centers to give parents information about SBS via brochures, DVDs or one-on-one sessions with a nurse educator. The Dittmans worked with Lucio’s office to get this piece of legislation passed.
“It’s such a positive experience when people have a baby,” Kathy Dittman says. “People don’t want to think about this, yet we know most children are shaken because of incessant crying. We try to prepare parents for how to handle it.”
If you are taking care of a baby who continues to cry even after you’ve tried to calm him with food, a diaper change or cuddling, put him in a safe place like a crib and walk away, say Shaken Baby Alliance and Center for Miracles experts. Take a few minutes and leave the room. If you’re feeling stressed out, ask a friend, neighbor or relative to watch the child while you take a break.
This is the type of information the Center for Miracles works to disseminate. Lukefahr says they are especially concerned with isolated parents, those struggling with substance abuse and parents with anger issues. Yet, the tips they offer could apply to anyone.
“All of us need help and support raising our children,” Lukefahr says. “It’s very hard to raise a child 24/7 by yourself. A lot of people don’t realize until it’s too late that they need to look around for help and support.”
Center for Miracles – San Antonio center provides evaluation, diagnosis and treatment for children who are suspected victims of abuse or neglect. 704-3800. www.centerformiracles.org.
National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome – Provides SBS prevention programs, training courses and public education campaigns. 888-273-0071. www.dontshake.com.
The Shaken Baby Alliance – Fort Worth-based organization provides support for victim families and information for law enforcement, social workers and the public at large about SBS. 817-882-8686. Http://shakenbaby.org.
Laurie A. Kaiser is the former editor of Our Kids.
First published August 2007 in Our Kids San Antonio.