One mother's story: shaken baby syndrome

by Boston Children's Hospital staff on July 15, 2009

handsAnother sad side effect of the economic downturn is an increase in child abuse. Here, the mother of a Children’s patient shares the story of how her husband shook their 2-month-old daughter – and how they’ve spent the last few years trying to put their lives back together.

Your life can change in the blink of an eye. I wouldn’t have believed that until it happened to me. Our daughter was almost 2 months old and I was going out for an afternoon with a friend. I was taking my older daughter, Tessa*, while my husband stayed home with our newborn, Erin. When Tessa and I arrived home I was reassured to see Erin sleeping on my husband’s shoulder. I asked how things were and he said that it had been a good day. I was happy to see the two of them sharing an intimate moment.

Over the next two days, Erin was throwing up her bottles and not sleeping well. On the third morning, I changed her diaper and she had a black stool. Shortly after, she started shaking on one side of her body. I called my husband and said that I was going to take her to the doctor right away. I had him on speaker phone so I could tend to the baby. He asked me to take it off speaker and told me that while I’d been out two days earlier he couldn’t get Erin to sleep, and he shook her to get her to stop crying. I was shocked. Why would he do that? Why didn’t he tell me sooner? He said that he was terrified and didn’t know what to do. I told him I was going to call the doctor because she needed to be seen immediately. I also said that I was going to have to tell them what he’d done. He said that all that mattered was that Erin was safe and her medical needs attended to.

The doctor’s office told me to bring her in right away. I didn’t mention the fact that she’d been shaken until we were in the office and Erin had another seizure. From Erin’s pediatrician’s office we went to our local hospital, where I had to repeat the story of how she had been injured and speak to a social worker.

Erin was tiny for her age and veins were difficult to find, so they had to run a line into a vein on her head so they could take blood. This aged me 10 years at least. My poor sweet girl! How could this be happening? When was I going to wake up from this nightmare?

The decision came to transfer Erin to Children’s Hospital Boston. I remember that I was not allowed to sit in the back of the ambulance with her, but instead had to sit in front with the driver. My thoughts were racing. The little I knew about Shaken Baby Syndrome was that it is considered a form of child abuse and my husband could go to jail. The drive to Boston was interminable.

When we arrived, my husband was there. Erin’s color had gone pasty and she had another seizure. The neurologist on call gave her some medication to calm the seizure. Seeing my tiny baby hooked up to all different kinds of machines is an image that I’ll never forget. While in the emergency room, a state trooper and some police officers from our town came to speak to my husband and me. They spoke to us separately. As I began relaying the story, my composure dissipated and the tears began to flow. I blamed myself. I should never have gone out that day. How could I allow this to happen to Erin? I remember the officer saying to me that it was not my fault. I should have been able to trust my husband with our young daughter. Trust is a small little word that carries so much weight.

After the questioning, Erin was admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). My husband wasn’t allowed in to see her, but I visited her there once she had been put in a room, spoke with her nurses and then headed home to Tessa. On the train ride home, the Department of Social Services called and told me what needed to happen according to the law. They said that my husband could not come home, and I had to go to the court the next day and take out a restraining order against him or my daughters would go into foster care.

My husband was taken by the police back to our town. They informed him that he would need to go to the police station to be charged with the crime the following day. He picked me up after I got off the train, and I told him that he could not come home. He sobbed and apologized for hurting Erin. He dropped me in the driveway and went to a hotel.

Tessa and I slept together that night. I can’t believe I slept, but exhaustion overtook me. I remember hugging Tessa throughout most of the night.

The next day, I took Tessa to the sitter’s house, dropped off clothes for my husband at the hotel, told him to get a lawyer and went to Boston. When I saw Erin in the NICU, her nurses said she’d had a good evening and that the medication had taken care of the seizures. She would need an MRI and X-rays to determine if there had been damage to her brain. Only then could we begin to find out if she would have permanent problems as a result of the shaking. A hospital social worker, who was so compassionate and professional, explained to me that she would only be on our case until we left the hospital, then I would be assigned a social worker from the Department of Social Services (DSS).

My husband had shaken Erin on Sunday. It was Wednesday. Life had changed. My life and my family’s existence were not under my control any longer. What would happen to us? After spending the day with Erin, I went to court and filed the restraining order. The DSS had been very specific about what needed to be included in the order so that I could retain custody of my children. Some of the court employees were not very kind. They reminded me how lucky I was that Erin was not dead. I was an emotional wreck and these civil servants were not being the least bit civil to me.

The local paper picked up the story. The reporter called and had the audacity to ask for “my side of the story.” My job called. Any chance of trying to survive this ordeal in privacy was gone. It was made worse by the treatment I continued to receive from people who knew nothing about our situation, including one of the DSS social workers, who came to my house one morning before I went to visit Erin at the hospital. She read me the riot act, asking how I could have let this happen. “You’re a college educated woman,” she told me. “You don’t fit the usual profile of a mother of a shaken baby.” (I would learn much later at an Early Intervention conference from a state public health official that our demographic was actually the more common one for Shaken Baby Syndrome.)Is this what happens when your child is shaken? Is this how professionals deal with a family in crisis? I was in tears and felt like the worst mother in the world. Hadn’t the police officer told me that this wasn’t my fault? Hadn’t the social worker at the hospital treated me like a human being?

I still had not told my extended family what was going on. I finally called on Friday. One of the hardest phone calls of my life was telling my father what had happened. He was on a plane the next day and was the rock I needed to survive until Erin came home from the hospital the following Wednesday. She was put on Phenobarbital to control the seizures, and to this day has never had another one.

The last three years have been challenging. At first, we didn’t know if Erin would have more seizures or long-term brain damage that would affect her for the rest of her life. A series of MRIs has shown that Erin’s brain has some damage that might impact her vision when she’s older (she wears glasses today), but so far her cognitive abilities have not been affected. She received occupational therapy (OT), physical therapy (PT) and other therapies through Early Intervention (EI) from the time she came home from the hospital until her third birthday. And since aging out of EI, she receives OT, PT and speech therapy services at school twice a week and goes to school five days a week. Despite all of this, I know that we’re fortunate; Erin is a thriving and terrific toddler.

There has of course been a lot of fallout from this. My husband didn’t go to jail, but he pled guilty and is on probation. And are we still together? We are. He wasn’t allowed to move back into our home until sanctioned by the court, 18 months after shaking Erin. He was crushed by this incident. Being forced to live away from us for a year and a half gave him time to think about what happened. He thought he had lost his family. He also knew that he had hurt Erin and, as you can imagine, suffers terrible guilt.

The members of my extended family have handled this situation in different ways. My father hasn’t accepted what happened, but forgives my husband. I’m the oldest of four children. One of my brothers trusts my judgment and has put the incident in the past. My other brother and sister wouldn’t accept my husband’s apology and won’t attend any family function where he is present. This hurts me very deeply, but I cannot change their hearts. My only hope is that they will, in time, forgive him and realize that everyone is human and that the world is not black and white.

And then there’s the inevitable question of what we will tell Erin and Tessa when they get older. While my husband was out of our lives, I had Tessa in her own individual therapy to deal with the fact that her father was not a constant presence in her life, but we didn’t talk about why he was gone. And to be honest, I don’t yet know how to explain this to Erin. My therapist told me that I will have to share this with her that I should be prepared for possible repercussions. When the time comes to have this discussion with the girls, we will do it as a family and with the guidance of a family therapist.

For me, the time apart allowed me to go to therapy and figure out what I wanted for my family. I needed to become whole again so that I could be a strong mother. Together, my husband and I attended —and still attend—couples’ counseling. Forgiving him allowed me to heal. Rebuilding trust is an ongoing process. Not everyone agrees with my decision, but when we sit down to dinner as a family and I see the love in Tessa and Erin’s eyes for their father and mother, I know I made the right decision. Life can change in the blink of an eye, and when I blink, I want to see my family together.

* All names have been changed to protect the family’s identity.

If you’d like to ask this mother a question, share your own experience or reflect on her story, please comment below.

What resources are available to families who become frustrated or angry?

Read a Q&A about Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Children’s Trust Fund

Healthy Families Massachusetts

Massachusetts Citizens for Children

Massachusetts Department of Public Health

Parents Helping Parents
1-800-632-8188

122 comments

  • Jay22

    I hope you and your family recover fully so that your brother and sister can accept your husband back into the family.
    I never for a second thought that you would leave him while reading the story, it didnt even cross my mind until you mentioned it.
    I would stay wth my husband if I ever had to face this terrible desicion, and I am so glad to hear that your daughted has no major long time effects.
    It was a moment of pure insanity and it happens to mothers and fathers who deeply love their babies. I remember telling my partner when we firt had our baby that if he was even feeling too stressed by crying that he should leave the baby down and go out of the room. play some music to cover the crying if he has to, and calm down before going back to him. But I think that there should be more education, and definatly more education about the fact that fathers can shake their babies too.
    best of luck hun xxxxx

  • T_ospeaks

    Shaking doesn’t cause the symptoms used to diagnose SBS, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics changed the name to “Abusive Head Trauma” because severe impact is needed, and violent shaking would injure the neck before causing injury to the head. No witnessed incident of shaking has ever been known to cause those symptoms. Not even the far more violent whiplash injury of vehicle accidents causes it, but many other things do. It appears that “inconsolable crying” preceded the shaking incident. That in itself is a red flag–it’s a sign of brain inflammation, for one thing, which means the condition may have come first and the shaking after. Vaccines, infections, certain meds and other causes can produce brain inflammation/swelling which in turn can cause hemorrhaging, or there are many caused of blood disorders and bleeding that can come first and cause brain swelling. Where were the neck injuries in this case? –I don’t think so. You may have a parent guilty of frustration and bad judgement, but innocent of abuse and causing injury, which makes it potentially a double tragedy.

  • miraclebaby

    Erins mom: is there a way i can speak to you? do you have facebookor email i can contact you on or can i give you my contact information? Im going trough a similar case in some ways and would love/ appreciate if we can chat.. thank you for sharing your story..

  • kay

    Kay

    me and my ex are now back together again thanks to you thank you for all your help I really appreciate it you have been a lot of help thank you so  much me and him would have never gotten back 2 gather if it was not for your helpful love spell thanks again. sincerely.i will always spread your great work. if you are in need of this man you can contact him, is a good spell caster at reunitingexspell@gmail.com 

  • SisterofSBSvictim

    The problem is that most people dont know that there is help or even that SBS exsits! It is SICK that you know people that shake babies for attention. My adopted sister is a victim of SBS. She has SEVER PERMANT BRAIN DAMAGE! This particual mother is VERY blessed as I am sure she is well aware. My sisters brain was obliterated! She has only a tiny piece of her occipital lobe, and a brain stem. The rest is died. As a result she can not sit, stand, eat, walk, talk, or even hold her head up. In fact it is easier to say what she can to which is only laugh, smile, and cry. She was perfect when she was born. Now she is forever a 3 month old baby. She is 10 and doctors cant explain why she is alive with the amount of Brain trauma she sutained… I agree SBS is inexusible, but so few people ever talk about it that the help that is avaible is unknown.

  • GracieW

    I never understood how anyone could shake a baby until now. My first son was such an easy baby. He almost never cried, never got sick, slept soundly, cooed adorably and was just the easiest baby in the world. I would read stories like this and feel very judgmental. Now I have a 2 month old son. He has colic and some nights he just screams and screams. I try the swing, the vibrating bouncer, gripe water, nursing, rocking, burping, swaddling…and he still cries and cries. My husband works overnight so I’m on my own at night and during the day when my husband is sleeping. Last night I felt myself growing angry. I was beyond exhausted and the baby would not stop screaming. But I recognized my growing anger. I put the baby in his crib and went downstairs and fell asleep on the couch. When I came back up an hour later, the baby had cried himself to sleep. I felt guilty but I knew he was alright and crying it out would not hurt him. But never again will I judge these parents. Good people who are sleep deprived can snap under stress. Thats why education is so important. Parents need to know if they are feeling angry they need to put the baby down and walk away. There is no shame in that. We’re all human.

  • Lisa

    I can not speak on the sbs but i can speak on mistakes my father shot my sister in the head by a mistake he was outside cleaning the gun and the gun went off and shot my older sister in the head and my mom forgave my father and they being together for forty five years people make mistakes what im trying to understand why she would want to leave and be away from her two month old if she’s not working i have a seven month old i do not let his father watch him and he is a great father babies needs a womens touch so if i have to go the store doctor anywhere my mother watches him and you know what my father did what he did but i finds myself watching every move he makes with my son i dont trust my father that much with him and what he did was a mistake but i dont judge my mother on why she stayed with my father and im glad they together i love my father  

  • Natalea

    If at all possible I would like to speak to the mother who wrote this…I am going through an extremely similar experience. please email me at nnmy16@yahoo.com

  • Littlesandraj

    Would you have keep your marriage vows if you husband was sent to prison for 15 years? If your baby died 2 1/2 years later as a direct result of his actions? It’s easy for people to judge when they haven’t walked in our shoes. You mentioned an older child and I assume he never did anything like this before and I’m sure he won’t again. Yes, he should have told you sooner, but at least he told you. Your lucky that your baby was 2 months old, not 3 weeks old like my baby girl. You love your husband and your family. Your husband was lucky to get probation. I’m happy you were able to keep your family together. I learned something about forgiveness just this past Sunday. We forgive others for our benefit. If we chose to forgive, it does mean that we have to re-establish a relationship with that person. I’m glad your husband is back in your family. My situation was a little different, my husband got sentenced to 15 years, so I lost my baby and husband in one fatal moment. I too trusted my husband to watch our baby. I purposely got pregnant again before he was sentenced to prison so I could fill the void inside of me. I ended up divorcing him and remarrying  a wonderful man that adopted my son. This happened over 12 years ago, and my first husband will be release on August 16, 2012. I still have a connection to him that I’m trying to break, but I am coming to realize why i am having such a hard time, it’s because i feel it’s the only connection to my dead baby. People can say what they want to say, and judge, and say what they would do in our situation, but until they walk in our shoes, they need to keep their mouths quiet because their words only hurt the victims in this situation, the mothers.  And by the way, it’s the father’s job to protect the family including the children, don’t blame the mother’s for not protecting their children.

  • Blhudak

    This is such a heartfelt and honest account of such a tragic situation.  I have such a better understanding of the “human” side of this story.  You and your husband are both humans and should both be treated as such. I can imagine how devastating this has been for both of you. I know how difficult it can be to forgive a spouse, but it can also be the very catalyst for the survival of your family. You are a brave and courageous woman, a loving mother and a supportive spouse.  Please don’t let the negative and ignorant comments make you think any different.

  • Amanda

    Hello,
    I am in the process of adopting my nephew. He was shaken at 6 weeks old, he is now 22 months. He is blind in his left eye and developmentally delayed. Not sure about permanent brain damage yet, he shows a lot of signs for autism, but we were very lucky. My younger sister, 19, moved states to be with me and our older sister when she was six months pregnant. When my nephew was six weeks she was tired and said she just wanted him to stop crying. She shook him, but the crying got worse and so she forcefully hit his head on the tile floor while laying him down causing three skull fractures. She said she was so scared and he was sleeping and breathing so she never told. About a week later she rushed him to the er for vomitting and seizures. It wasn’t long before the doctors figured it out and she confessed. My husband and I took him home after his very brave fight. I completely understand when you talk about social services. One worker told my older sister it was her fault and tried to have her daughter taken from her. We have had him for almost two years now and have always planned to adopt and they have done nothing but try to break us and get us to put him into foster care. I recently contacted our governor and am happy to say that all of those workers have resigned and the adoption begins this month. My sister was sentenced to ten years. She’s taking several self help classes in prison and hopefully soon will be able to take some college courses. We have talked a lot about the situation and I have explained that she will be away and he needs stability. I was angry at her still and she understood. I told her she deserved the chance to start over when her time was served, but not with him. I will tell him the truth when he is old enough, even started a scrapbook, and then he can decide if he wants a relationship with her and he can ask her any questions he has. He is doing really well, he’s adjusting to his sight and progressing everyday. He is a miracle. Your story speaks to me and reminds me that I’m not alone…and neither are you. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Lala

    My husband is an alcoholic and an abuser of me physically and mentally. We have a 11 month old boy who is my life. I can tell you from experience that I have been to the very brink of distraction with my child. He to this day is up every other hour, doesn’t nap, and typically no matter how hard I try goes to bed late. I have been sleep deprived without a stitch of help for 11 months. I get no help from my loser husband and my baby wakes up screaming and I lay in bed and my blood boils. I want to scream I want to cry and my anger spills out of me…. I have never hit, punched, shaken, pinched, bit so much as spanked my child. I will tell you this I have wanted to unleash on something anything. This man had an extreme moment of weakness. I must say that his tolerance level was low. But it just happened so fast. He has to live with this nightmare forever. I can see how someone gets there, but education means everything. Just walk away and take a deep breathe. Abuse is cyclical, my anger and frustration has nothing to do with my child really it’s the fact that my husband treats me awful, sleeps in, forgets to pay the bills and leaves me with a high needs baby. This all combined, like in many cases could lead to abuse. I have to remember who is the innocent here and it is sure easy to remember , no matter what my world revolves around my child.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kim.bailey.9484941 Kim Bailey

    A child’s life & safety are more important than anything & I be damn if I would stay with the person who harmed my child. I would be calling a divorce lawyer & he would be kicked to the curb. God bless all the families that have gone through this horrible tragedy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kim.bailey.9484941 Kim Bailey

    Amen I agree bc if he did it once what will stop him from doing it again & him being in same household doesn’t keep her safe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kim.bailey.9484941 Kim Bailey

    Obviously it isn’t more I portent or else she would not be with him & god forbid those kid(s) are harmed again he won’t be the only one at fault bc she knew what he was capable of from the first time.

  • Elaine

    very true…. thats the hammurabi code… make sure that you get your facts right before you post something.

  • Elaine

    You are a very strong woman. I admire you for being that way.Thank you for being an example.

  • janna

    Hi, I have some questions. First, how could you find it possible to let your husband back into your home? After reading this: “A series of MRIs has shown that Erin’s brain has some damage that might impact her vision when she’s older” I was terrified. Aren’t you afraid he’ll hurt your child or both children again?? Reading your article I don’t sense a whole lot of contrition or soul-searching on your husband’s part…you mention that he was on probation, but what about intensive counseling or anger management?

  • janna

    This echos exactly how I feel. The man abused a helpless, silent child and then LIED. He completely perverted his role of father and caretaker. The action of shaking a baby itself is horrible, but who knows what would have happened if he fessed up right away and medical intervention was sought??

  • UncleHoot

    Curious… Black stool is a sign of a bleeding disorder, which may have many causes. However, it is most certainly not a sign of shaken baby syndrome. Even more interesting is that bleeding disorders are very commonly misdiagnosed as SBS. Sadly, this misdiagnosis may have resulted In a much poorer outcome for this child.
    Could the baby have had a bleeding disorder and have been shaken? I guess that can’t be ruled out, but no shaking may have been necessary.

  • Vanessa Thornton

    Ive been through something very similar, if this mother reads this, I’d like to talk with you! Thorntonvanessa@gmail.com

  • Amy Lynn

    i agree kim. im a mom and a young one but even i know between right and wrong. and it was the wrong choice she made to stay. it was a mistake that coulda killed his daughter. shes dumb to stay

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