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Wednesday, 13 June, 2001, 22:57 GMT 23:57 UK
Gentle shaking 'may kill babies'
Very young babies are more susceptible to injury
Very young babies are more susceptible to injury
Even mild shaking may kill a baby, say researchers.

A study by UK doctors, published in the New Scientist, found severe force was not necessarily needed to cause fatal injuries.

The findings call into question current assumptions about shaken-baby syndrome, and could have huge implications in convictions for killing babies - leading to appeals in cases that have already been heard.

Everyday events such as a parent bouncing a baby on their knee are not going to cause such injuries, according to the researchers.

You could imagine scenarios that might produce the damage without it being deliberately inflicted

Dr Jennian Geddes,
Royal London Hospital
Dr Jennian Geddes of the Royal London Hospital, who led the research said injury would only be caused by vigorous unsupported movement of the head.

She said most people would realise that would be dangerous, but added: "You could imagine scenarios that might produce the damage without it being deliberately inflicted."

Breathing problems

The Royal London researchers, along with Professor Helen Whitwell, professor of forensic pathology at the University of Sheffield, studied the post-mortems of 53 children thought to have died from deliberate injuries.

Thirty-seven were under a year old when they died.

It had been thought that brain damage in such cases would have been caused by the brain banging against the skull as the baby was violently shaken.

This causes an injury called diffuse axonal injury (DAI) - a particular kind of damage to nerves.

But the study, funded by medical charity Action Research, found just two out of 37 had this kind of injury.

Instead, three-quarters of the babies had died because they had stopped breathing.

The researchers suggest that damage may have occurred to the craniocervical junction, where the brain meets the spinal cord.

That could happen if the baby's unsupported head is allowed to flop backwards and forwards, which can damage the joint and cause potentially fatal breathing problems.

That kind of damage can look like diffuse axonal injury.

In young babies, who have relatively floppy necks and heavy heads, the joint is particularly vulnerable.

The researchers found eight out of the 37 babies had evidence of this kind of injury, and three others had damaged neck nerves.

They speculate other babies may have had similar damage, but that the original autopsies may not have looked for it.

Legal impact

John Binns, a London-based criminal defence solicitor with Victor Lissack and Roscoe, said the study's findings could influence trials of suspected "shaken-baby syndrome.

He said: "Unless it is certain that injuries were caused by gross negligence or worse, the judge will direct the jury to acquit.

"On the basis of these findings, it is impossible to imagine a prosecution succeeding in anything but the clearest cases."

Professor Whitwell said she expects to receive "a lot of flak" over the findings.

But she said: "The evidence is there, and what spin others choose to put on it is up to them.

"The message is to treat babies with extreme care. Don't shake them in the first place."

A spokeswoman for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) welcomed the research, and said: "Many parents do not realise how easy it is to cause devastating damage to frail infant bodies."

The full research paper will be published in the July issue of the neurology journal Brain.

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See also:

03 Nov 00 | Health
Baby abuse increase fears
03 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Campaign to protect babies
05 Feb 99 | Medical notes
Shaken baby syndrome
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