Witnessed Shaking: Reports and Reflections

Police in Concord, New Hampshire, reported last week that a woman had brought them a 3-month-old baby whom she had seen being shaken. According to  WMUR, Channel 9, police took the child to the hospital, where doctors found bruising on the child’s ribs but apparently no brain injuries. The Union Leader coverage adds that the witness is not the child’s mother.

This case prompted a colleague of mine to pull out her notes from a talk given in 1996 at the First National Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome, in Salt Lake City, Utah, by a team from from the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

With pediatrician Dr. Carolyn Levitt, case director Julie Pape had collected 12 cases in which children under the age of two were brought to the child-protection team for evaluation after witnesses reported seeing them shaken. These children were examined not because of physical signs or symptoms, Pape emphasized, but because of the witnessed assault. “Those people who were observing the events felt as though that episode of shaking had to be significant enough or violent enough to cause injury in the child.”

All of the children had complete skeletal x-rays, and six of them had both CT scans and retinal exams:  No subdural hematomas, brain swelling, or retinal hemorrhages were found in any of the children, although bruises and fractures were found in some.

The cases:

  • A 19-year-old uncle left alone with a 7-week-old told the child’s mother that he had shaken the baby. He reported shaking the infant four or five times, after which “he became scared, because he thought that he may have injured the baby.” The only physical finding was a bruise on the child’s ankle, which the uncle acknowledged he may have caused when he picked up the baby.
  • A suicidal teen-aged mother reported shaking her 5-month-old son. Examination revealed old soft-tissue injuries, some bruising, and a burn.
  • An employee at a juvenile residential home reported seeing a young mother shake her 6-week-old daughter. A bone scan revealed three leg fractures but the CT scan and retinal exam were negative.
  • A bank teller reported seeing a mother shake her 12-month-old daughter in a stroller. Doctors found no broken bones or soft-tissue damage.
  • A mother brought her 17-month-old daughter to the clinic with a report that she had seen the biological father shake and spank the girl. The skeletal survey was negative, and old bruises were inconclusive for abuse.
  • A single mother called her own father and told him she had shaken her 8-month-old daugher, in her walker. The grandfather called the child’s pediatrician, who reported the case to CPS. A skeletal exam, a CT scan, and a retinal exam produced no physical findings.
  • A mother reported she had seen the father of her 4-month-old son shake the infant. The father’s hands were around the child’s rib cage, she said, and the boy’s head was “bobbing back and forth.” The skeletal, CT, and retinal exams were all negative.
  • During a hospital visit for a burn injury, the mother of an 11-month-old patient reported that she had seen the boy’s father shake him 10 months earlier, when the infant was one month old. The skeletal survey, CT scan, and retinal exam were negative, but the boy had some soft tissue injury.
  • A mother brought in her 17-month-old daughter after a visitation with the girl’s father, because of bruises. The grandparents reported that they had seen the father shaking the girl on previous occasions. A skeletal survey revealed healing  arm and leg fractures.
  • The paternal grandparents of a 17-month-old boy and a 5-month-old girl called CPS to say they’d seen the children’s mother shaking them and throwing them onto the couch while the three were visiting. The children were removed from the mother at the AMTRAK station. Skeletal surveys showed no fractures, and doctors found no bruising.
  • A mother reported seeing the father of her 9-month-old daughter shake the little girl during an argument that also involved a gun to the mother’s head. The child protection team did a skeletal survey, head CT, and retinal exam, “and as is consistent with many of the other kids in this study, we did not find any physical findings,” Pape reported.

None of the 12 children was admitted to the hospital, although one returned for a follow-up bone scan.

Noting that “children who have a history of being shaken do not always sustain physical injury,” Pape advocated a “consistent medical approach” to these cases, as further examination did uncover evidence of past abuse in some cases.

“We also need to listen to these histories and not ignore them,” Pape said. “If a parent is saying, or if anyone is saying, that they have witnessed an act that is violent enough that they think this child could be injured, we need to pay attention to that. And that’s not necessarily because we think these might be shaken babies, because obviously we are learning that this is not how children who are diagnosed with SBS present. However, these children might be children who are battered and at risk.”

Also, if these really are shaken babies, Pape clarified, “We don’t want these children to go on and then have physical findings because someone may have shaken this child and then decided that if I shook the child this hard and it didn’t have physical findings then it should be OK.”

This study doesn’t seem to have been published, and I haven’t seen anything like it in the literature. As far as I know, there have been no witnessed shakings that were followed by findings of brain swelling and brain bleeding. If anyone knows of one, please leave a comment.

I’ve seen nanny-cam footage of violent treatment that seems to include shaking (this YouTube video, for example, and this footage from India), and news reports of the resulting prosecutions (like this one).  Has any of these cases ever resulted in the triad?

Curiouser and curiouser.

Spring 2014 update:   Although I’m not comfortable with how the nurse is handling the baby in this murky report from Tomo News, it doesn’t look as violent to me as the narrator and commenters describe.

Fall 2015 update: An Alabama television station reports that a day care worker was fired after a parent saw her shaking a toddler via an on-line video feed. Doctors found no injuries.

Winter 2016-17:  Two more reported cases of witnessed shaking with no injury:

Winter 2018-19: Alas, I’ve had to delete quite a few links to surprising and unsettling videos no longer on line—all resulting in no injuries. But we have two new entries:

copyright 2012, Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this site.


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

10 responses to “Witnessed Shaking: Reports and Reflections

  1. Oh.. and here is a more relevant case for this page.. A coroner’s report includes a witnessed who saw a mother “shake the baby like a rag doll, hard enough for the baby’s head to flop backwards and forwards. She did this three or four times. “. Subsequently, “Medical staff thoroughly examined Baby C at Alice Springs Hospital. This examination revealed that she had sustained no physical injuries.”

    Click to access baby-c.pdf

  2. Not a witnessed shaking, but it would be interesting to get more information on this “short fall” case, where a baby dies a couple of days after being dropped from her mothers arms. I wonder what showed up in autopsy?

  3. Kate N

    I am becoming obsessed with this topic and strongly believe thay shaking alonedoes not cause these injuries. In the one example you provided of the dad who shook the baby 9 months prior, do you know if the soft tissue injury was old and where on the body the injury was?

    • Thank you for posting. Welcome to the world of the skeptics. I think there is way too little understanding of what’s going on here, but it does seem extremely unlikely to me that shaking without impact could cause the triad without some major neck damage. Sorry, I’m not sure which case you mean—I don’t have much more information on any of these cases than I’ve provided here.

  4. Pingback: Old Cases, New Cases, Sad Cases, True Cases | On SBS

  5. Pingback: Witnessed Baby Shakings – Shaken Baby Syndrome | Wrongful Convictions Blog

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