Shaken baby syndrome is a leading cause of child abuse-related deaths in the United States. Take the proper steps to keep yourself calm and your baby safe.

baby crying
Credit: Linda Farwell

When your baby has been crying for hours on end, it's normal to feel that you would do anything to stop the tears. Whatever you do, don't shake your baby. Research suggests that as many as three to four children a day experience a severe or fatal head injury caused by child abuse, usually at the hands of a parental figure. Most cases of shaken baby syndrome (SBS), also known as abusive head trauma, aren't intentional -- they happen when someone loses control, usually out of frustration or an attempt to quiet a crying baby -- but they are extremely harmful.

Shaking a baby is similar to what happens when you shake a half-empty jug of orange juice, says Joseph Hagan, M.D., a pediatrician at Vermont Children's Hospital. Just as juice sloshes back and forth, the baby's brain slams around violently inside the skull, rupturing blood vessels and nerves and causing bleeding and swelling in the brain, he explains. And just as the orange juice continues to crash around after you stop shaking it, so does the baby's brain, which is why even a small shake -- once or twice -- can be damaging. At least 25 percent of shaken babies die. Those who live may experience mental retardation and developmental delays, blindness, seizures, cerebral palsy, physical disabilities or other serious health consequences. To avoid this tragedy, always keep these prevention tips in mind.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Keeping your composure is probably one of the most important things you can do for your baby. When you feel your anger rising, try using controlled breathing, giving yourself a positive pep talk, or counting to 10 (or 20 or 30, as many as you need). Having realistic expectations can also help. Recognize that all babies cry quite a bit, and that the crying doesn't mean you're a bad parent, or that your baby is "bad" and trying to irritate you. Knowing what to expect and not beating yourself up with guilt may help keep your emotions in check.

Think Outside the Box

It's easy to feel like you're out of options if your baby continues to wail even after you've fed, changed, burped, and rocked him. Think of other ways to soothe and calm him down. Sing a happy song, dance with him in your arms, give him a mini massage, read to him in an exaggerated voice, make funny facial expressions, or strap him in his car seat and go for a drive. The distraction may help both of you unwind. If nothing seems to work, check with your pediatrician to make sure the crying isn't caused by acid reflux or some other illness, says Dr. Hagan.

Find Time to Sleep In

Exhaustion makes it more likely that you will lash out at your baby. Yes, it's difficult to get enough shut-eye with a young baby, but make sleep a priority. Take turns with your partner tending to the baby overnight by working out a schedule where you each get every other night off. Ask a relative to take over while one of you snoozes for a bit, or consider hiring a cleaner to take care of all the chores, so you'll actually able to sleep when the baby sleeps.

Take a Parenting Course

Attend a parenting education class, support group, or similar program to learn coping strategies and hear stories and tips from other parents who have "been there, done that" -- and survived. "The more a parent understands and is prepared to handle the challenges of caring for a new baby, the less likely a parent will to react in frustration by shaking or injuring the baby," says Ryan Steinbeigle, executive director at the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome. Ask your pediatrician or a local children's hospital for a referral to a helpful organization.

Explain the Danger to Others

Have a conversation with anyone who cares for your baby about the dangers of SBS, be it your parents, in-laws, siblings, extended family, good friends, the sitter. Talk about the dangers of shaking an infant and what helps you to soothe your baby -- for instance, how she likes to be held or what particular pop song makes her smile. Then explain what the person can do if those strategies don't work and they're still frustrated with a baby's crying. Generally, young kids don't have the strength needed to shake a baby, but it's still a good idea to teach them to be gentle with the baby at all times (but never leave a young child with the baby unattended), says Dr. Hagan. Be sure to screen babysitters and day-care providers properly, and never leave your baby alone with someone if you suspect (or know) he has anger or other behavioral issues.

Take Care of Yourself First

Low stress levels always mean a happier, more patient mom. Make it a priority to do the things that are good for you, such as eating balanced meals, drinking enough water, working out, and tending to your appearance. Set aside some time for special ways to treat yourself, like reading a juicy novel, going to the nail salon, taking a long bath, meeting up with a friend for coffee, or watching a movie with popcorn. When you make it a habit to show yourself some love, you'll be less resentful (and more loving) toward your baby.

Walk Away When You Can

Always take a break if you feel overwhelmed. Hand the baby duty over to another trusted adult if you can, even if it's only for five or ten minutes. If you're alone, it's okay to step away and let the baby cry. "Letting your baby cry while you calm down is not going to cause the child any harm," says Dr. Hagan. He advises putting the baby in her crib on her back and then going into a different room to regroup. You don't have to go so far that you can't hear your baby cry. Muffling the sound by stepping into a nearby room or hallway can help reduce your frustration. Check on the baby every 5 to 10 minutes.

Get Help

If you ever feel like you're losing control, put your baby in his crib immediately and call someone. Ask a trusted neighbor or nearby friend or relative to come over and watch the baby while you cool off. Check with your health-care provider if you think you're experiencing postpartum depression. If you ever have thoughts of hitting or shaking your baby, or you're worried about your ability to cope with his crying, contact your local child protective services agency or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) for guidance and referrals to local assistance. Reaching out for help doesn't mean your baby will be taken away. Kids usually aren't removed from the home unless there are extreme circumstances. What's more likely to happen is that professionals will work with you to make sure you get the help that you need to keep your precious baby safe.

Copyright © 2015 Meredith Corporation.