Preventing Abusive Head Trauma in Children

Know the Facts about Abusive Head Trauma
  • Abusive head trauma is a leading cause of physical child abuse deaths in children under 5 in the United States.
  • Abusive head trauma accounts for approximately one third of all child maltreatment deaths.
  • The most common trigger for abusive head trauma is inconsolable crying.
  • Babies less than one year old are at greatest risk of injury from abusive head trauma.

What Is Abusive Head Trauma?

Abusive head trauma (AHT), which includes shaken baby syndrome, is a preventable and severe form of physical child abuse that results in an injury to the brain of a child. AHT is most common in children under age five, with children under one year of age at most risk. It is caused by violent shaking and/or with blunt impact. The resulting injury can cause bleeding around the brain or on the inside back layer of the eyes.

Nearly all victims of AHT suffer serious, long-term health consequences such as vision problems, developmental delays, physical disabilities, and hearing loss. At least one of every four babies who experience AHT dies from this form of child abuse.

AHT often happens when a parent or caregiver becomes angry or frustrated because of a child’s crying. The caregiver then shakes the child and/or hits or slams the child’s head into something in an effort to stop the crying.

Crying, including long bouts of inconsolable crying, is normal behavior in infants. Shaking, throwing, hitting, or hurting a baby is never the right response to crying.

How Can Abusive Head Trauma Be Prevented?

Anyone can play a role in preventing AHT by understanding the dangers of violently shaking or hitting a baby’s head into something, knowing the risk factors and the triggers for abuse, and finding ways to support parents and caregivers in their community. CDC’s Technical Package for Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect Cdc-pdf[3.90 MB, 52 Pages, 508] identifies a number of strategies to help states and communities prioritize prevention activities based on the best available evidence.

If you are a parent or caregiver

  • Understand that infant crying is worse in the first few months of life, but it will get better as the child grows.
  • Try calming a crying baby by rocking gently, offering a pacifier, singing or talking softly, taking a walk with a stroller, or going for a drive in the car.
  • If the baby won’t stop crying, check for signs of illness and call the doctor if you suspect the child is sick.
  • If you are getting upset, focus on calming yourself down. Put the baby in a safe place and walk away to calm down, checking on the baby every 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Call a friend, relative, neighbor, or parent helpline for support.
  • Never leave your baby with a person who is easily irritated or has a temper or history of violence.

If you are a friend, family member, or observer of a parent or caregiver

  • Be aware of new parents in your family and community who may need help or support.
  • Offer to give a parent or caregiver a break when needed.
  • Let the parent know that dealing with a crying baby can be very frustrating, but infant crying is normal and it will get better.
  • Encourage parents and caregivers to take a calming break if needed while the baby is safe in the crib.
  • Be sensitive and supportive in situations when parents are dealing with a crying baby.
  • Be supportive of work policies (e.g., paid family leave) that make it easier for working parents to stay with their infants during the period of increased infant crying (i.e., between 4-20 weeks of age).

See Child Abuse and Neglect Resources for more articles, publications, and prevention resources about preventing abusive head trauma. 

Page last reviewed: February 26, 2019