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Shaken baby

7-minute read

If you think a baby has been shaken, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance or take the baby to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible.

Key facts

  • Nobody should ever shake a baby.
  • Shaking a baby can cause severe bleeding in the brain, leading to brain damage and even death.
  • Crying is a normal behaviour of young infants, but it can cause a lot of distress for parents and other caregivers.
  • Sometimes, if your baby starts crying suddenly, it can be a sign that your baby has a medical problem. If this happens, you should see your doctor.
  • If you feel distressed and overwhelmed about caring for your baby, seek help from your doctor or family health nurse.

Why would someone shake a baby?

If you have a baby, you'll probably go through times when you're exhausted and frustrated and feel you can't cope.

At times, you might be tempted to shake your crying baby, especially if the crying never seems to stop. It’s important to remember that shaking your baby can cause serious damage to your baby’s brain. If caring for your baby is making you feel overwhelmed and highly stressed, it’s best to put your baby in a safe place, walk away, calm down and ask for help.

How easy is it to hurt a baby?

It is very easy to hurt a baby. It only takes 1 or 2 hard shakes to seriously hurt an infant.

Babies have large and heavy heads in proportion to their bodies, and their necks are relatively weak, so they cannot control their head movement as easily as older children or adults. If you shake a baby, their head will move backward and forward very quickly. That can shake the brain and is critically dangerous.

Rough play, such as tossing your baby in the air or onto a soft bed, can be as dangerous as the act of shaking them in anger or frustration.

No parent or other caregiver should ever shake a baby.

What happens if you shake your baby?

Even a couple of violent shakes can make your baby’s brain slam into the hard bone of their skull, causing bleeding and injury.

Shaken babies can end up with brain-related problems including:

If the shaking is severe enough, the baby might die.

Why does my baby cry so much?

Crying is a normal behaviour in young infants. Babies often cry a lot in the first weeks of life, especially around 6 to 8 weeks of age. Babies usually cry less by the time they are around 3 to 4 months of age.

Your 6 to 8 week old baby can cry on average 2 to 3 hours per day. This is completely normal, but can make you feel exhausted and distressed.

While crying is normal behaviour in young infants, sometimes crying can be a sign that something worrying is going on with your baby. If your baby suddenly starts crying and seems irritable, there might be a medical cause. They may have an injury or illness that you can’t see (for example, a hernia or ear infection) or another medical cause.

If your baby suddenly starts to cry a lot, for no apparent reason and cannot be settled, see your doctor immediately.

What can I do if my baby won’t stop crying?

There are a few things you can try if your baby won’t stop crying.

First, check if the crying is due to something straightforward:

  • Is your baby hungry or thirsty?
  • Does your baby need a nappy change?
  • Does your baby have fever?
  • Is your baby teething?
  • Is your baby overtired?

If there is no obvious cause and crying continues, try to calm the baby by cuddling, massaging, rocking them in a pram, or talking or singing while holding them close.

If you can, ask others to help you. This might be your partner, your family, or a friend or a trusted neighbour.

What if I feel I might shake my baby?

If nothing you do seems to help, and you think you’re in danger of shaking your baby, or a baby in your care, here’s what to do:

  1. Put the baby in a safe place, such as a cot.
  2. Walk out of hearing range for a while.
  3. Calm down.
  4. Ask for help.

It might help to talk to your local nurse or doctor or contact Pregnancy Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 — they are available for advice and support 7 days a week.

Ask family and friends for help. They may be able to give you some new strategies you can use to calm your baby. Talking about how you feel with someone you trust can sometimes make you feel less stressed.

Tips to settle a crying baby - video

Video provided by Raising Children Network.

How can I tell if a baby has been shaken?

It can be very hard to know if a baby has been shaken.

The signs may include:

  • drowsiness
  • tremors
  • difficulty breathing or feeding
  • vomiting
  • pale or blue-coloured skin

The injury can be life threatening and the baby is at risk of permanent brain damage.

If you think a baby has been shaken, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance or take the baby to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible.

For more information call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022


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