Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on March 14, 2011Women commit shaken baby violence as often as men and are far less likely to confess, according to a new University of Florida study. Severe injuries and infant death, however, are more likely caused by a male perpetrator.
“Through the years, I had noticed we had a lot of female perpetrators, so I decided to see if there were any differences, and there were,” said Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen, medical director of the UF Child Protection Team. She conducted her research while medical director of a child protection consultation team at a New York children’s hospital.
“Victims of males had more significant injuries — all six deaths were from male perpetrators,” she said. ”Another big difference is that males tended to confess and females didn’t.”
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed a decade’s worth of abusive head trauma cases in a New York health system. Of the 34 cases, six of the children died.
Past research has typically linked child head trauma abuse to men; however, half of the patients (ages 1 month to almost three years old) in this study were abused by women.
“Mothers for centuries, probably, have been picking up and shaking infants,” Esernio-Jenssen said. “Although males are often more represented (in criminal cases), when you take anonymous phone calls, mothers say they shake their kids to get them to stop crying. If you do shake a baby hard enough, they do go to sleep; they become unconscious.”
The head trauma from this type of abuse is similar to the damage that would occur if a child were in a major car collision or if the car rolled over. Shaking violence can include bleeding and swelling in the brain and retinal hemorrhages. It can also cause the heart or breathing to stop and can induce a coma. If the child survives, long-term neurological damage can occur.
“This is not playing, bouncing the baby on your knee or even tossing him up in the air. This is violent, severe shaking,” she said.
Nearly all the children in the study had bleeding in the brain and retinal hemorrhages. They were also more likely to have cardiopulmonary arrest, require care from neurosurgeons and have a worse outcome if they were shaken by a man.
Only three of the 17 female abusers confessed, compared with 15 of 17 men; the women were also least likely to be prosecuted. On average, the women were older than the men, with the median age of the women being 34—seven years older than the median age of men.
Eighteen of the perpetrators confessed specifically to shaking the child, linking the victims’ head trauma to shaking and not a blow to the head or other injury, Esernio-Jenssen said.
“This adds to the literature,” she said. “People do confess to shaking, alone. And kids do die from shaking.”