Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2004 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak
New Scientific Evidence Refutes Existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome
Hundreds of people are in jail based on unjust convictions for causing the
so-called "shaken baby syndrome."
New scientific work reveals that people convicted of causing the shaken baby
syndrome are probably innocent. It turns out that the syndrome, strictly
defined, is based on medical inferences recently proven faulty.
If a baby dies suddenly and the cause of death is found to be bleeding
inside the skull without other injuries, it's become standard practice for
doctors to diagnose these observations as the "shaken baby syndrome" and for
police to assume that severe shaking of the baby severely harmed and killed
Based on this presumption, police usually suspect the last person alone with
the baby as having killed the baby. This person is often accused of murder -
even when medical and other evidence points elsewhere.
For example, babysitters have been charged with harming infants when
subsequent tests show a chronic subdural hematoma that originally developed
long before the babysitter even saw the child. Because of the shaken baby
presumption, prosecutors often falsely accuse the nearest caregiver even
when other conditions (such as a fall several days or even weeks earlier,
severe allergic reaction, or brain infection) actually led to the baby's
Several doctors created the concept of the shaken baby syndrome in the
1970s. They suspected that shaking a baby too hard, even without the baby's
head hitting anything solid, could cause injury and bleeding inside the
skull severe enough to induce death. Unfortunately, although this diagnosis
was simply a hypothesis without medical proof, it became accepted medical
More recently, Michael Prange, Ph.D., Brittany Coats, B.S., Ann-Christine
Duhaime M.D. and Susan Margulies, Ph.D., medical researchers at the
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, experimentally tested the shaken baby
hypothesis. They published their results last year in the Journal of
In a series of careful experiments using models, they simulated the forces
thought to produce the injuries associated with shaken baby syndrome. They
discovered that neither a man nor a woman can shake a baby hard enough to
only cause tearing or disruption of brain parenchyma (brain tissue, the
substance of the brain itself) or bleeding inside a baby's skull, either in
the brain itself (cerebral contusion and hematoma) or in the tissues between
the brain and the skull (such as a subdural hematoma). The usual definition
of shaken baby syndrome excludes injuries to the neck. The researchers'
experiments indicated that even the most vigorous shaking alone ,
without hitting the baby's head against a solid surface, could injure a
baby's neck but could not cause bleeding inside the skull.
Dr. Ronald Uscinski, MD, a neurosurgeon practicing in the Washington DC
area, reviewed the syndrome in the current issue of the Journal of American
Physicians and Surgeons (http://www.jpands.org/vol9no3/uscinski.pdf). In his
address to the associations' annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, in
mid-October, he observed, "Whenever we pick up an infant, we always support
the head. Why? We know intuitively that the infant's neck is too weak to
support its own head. Therein lays a truth. If a baby's neck is that weak,
that's where we should look for injury from shaking. Yet, by definition,
none of these infants supposed to suffer from shaken baby syndrome has such
a spinal cord injury. Could shaking harm a baby? Yes, I think so. But the
damage would first be to the chest or cervical spine; it would not be an
isolated head or brain injury."
Shaken baby syndrome has become enshrined in our courts and hospitals over
the last three decades. It's become popular to believe in it, and to
prosecute and persecute the presumed perpetrators of this terrible harm.
Babies and infants deserve to be protected from real trauma; parents and
caregivers need to be protected from unfounded suspicions. With scientific
evidence in hand, let justice and good medical judgment rule - for the sake
of the children and for all of us who love and care for them.
Editor's Note: Robert J. Cihak wrote this week's column
Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments
on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Discovery Institute
Senior Fellow and a past president of the Association of American Physicians
and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists.
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