Take a Break, Don’t Shake

Would anything ever make you hurt your own child?





I think most parents agree that the idea that they might hurt their own child is incomprehensible. However every year children, mostly infants between the ages of 2 and 4 months old, are harmed by parents or caregivers as a result of shaking injuries. The majority of these people are not monsters, rather they find themselves exhausted, vulnerable, and completely overwhelmed with the reality of taking care of a small child.

According to the CDC, “Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) is a preventable, severe form of physical child abuse resulting from violently shaking an infant by the shoulders, arms, or legs. SBS may result from both shaking alone or from shaking with impact.” Babies who have experienced a shaking injury can suffer permanent brain injury, cerebral palsy, blindness, and even death. When people have been asked what triggered them to shake their baby, the most common answer is inconsolable crying.

Crying. Now that is something that I can definitely relate to. When I was pregnant with my son I spent many hours dreaming of a beautiful, sleepy newborn who would snuggle in my arms, coo, smile, and gaze lovingly at me. I read all the books about how to structure a baby’s day. I was confident in my abilities to nurture and care for this little human being. After all, I’m a pediatric physical therapist…my background is in child development for goodness sake!

Take a Break1Reality jumped in very quickly. From the time he was born Aaron was a needy little guy who was not content except when he was being held or nursed (or both). He slept very little, and only in short spurts at a time. For the first 12 weeks of his life I swear he lived in my arms, at my breast, or in my Moby wrap. He nursed what felt like constantly through the night and the day. The stuff hit the proverbial fan when Aaron was about 3 weeks old and the crying started. Three and four hour stretches every day of high pitched screaming that nothing would soothe. Evenings were definitely the worst (you could set your clock by his 7:00 wail) but he was rarely really content throughout the day. Day after day found me cuddled onto the couch, often in the same clothes I had slept in, trying once again to calm a crying baby who didn’t seem to appreciate any of my efforts.  Some days I merely survived until 2:30, when Jonathan would be home from work and could take over, allowing me a shower, a nap, or a walk outside. I read every baby blog and parenting website you could think of. I read all the sleep books. I tried every sleep trick that every “expert” swore by to get my guy to sleep more than 90 minutes at a time. We went to the doctor, who gave us a diagnosis of “colic” and also determined that Aaron had a dairy sensitivity, so I started reading labels like a hawk and cut every trace of dairy out of my diet. The diet change helped quite a bit, but it wasn’t the magic bullet I had hoped for, and more and more I felt like I was quickly failing in the most important job I had ever undertaken.

Aaron was about 9 or 10 weeks old the night I hit my breaking point.  He had been up most of the night, and I hadn’t gotten more than 30 minutes of sleep at any stretch.  I was tired.  I hadn’t slept, I was frustrated with the crying, my body was tired of bouncing, an my arms felt like they were about to fall off.  I knew that I should wake up Jonathan and have him take over, but I had this view that I should be able to handle it and besides, Jonathan had to go to work in the morning.  If I were a “good wife” and a “good mother” I should be able to handle this, right?

At some point after 3 a.m. I had spent all my energy.  We had rocked in the chair in the nursery for over an hour and every time I slowed the motion he started to scream once again.  I stood up and started to dance around the nursery but the crying didn’t stop.  All I wanted him to do was stop crying and go to sleep.  I started scolding him, telling him he needed to SETTLE DOWN.  I started to bounce a little harder, and I felt my arms and body start to tense.  I held him up to my face and loudly told him to BE QUIET!  He didn’t stop.  I got more tense, I started to cry too.  Finally I looked down at my sobbing boy and realized I had nothing left to give him. I went busting into our bedroom, shoved him into his father’s arms and cried “You have to take him because I’m afraid I will hurt him.”  Then I stormed downstairs to the kitchen and had a good long cry.

I’m not proud of that night.  I should have asked for help sooner.  I was sleep deprived, anxious, frustrated, and feeling inadequate as a parent.  It was a dangerous situation for me and for Aaron. Luckily I had a supportive husband to turn to, or things could have turned out horribly differently.

I share this story because I think it is so important for new parents to know that your baby does not hate you because he is crying, and you are not a bad parent if you are having trouble handling it.  Even a good parent can get to a breaking point where they don’t know which way is up and they need a break.  I’m so grateful that I had someone else to turn to and also that people had told me that it is okay to put your baby down and let them cry when you are at your wit’s end.

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome has a great acronym: The Period of PURPLE Crying. They use this as the center of a program to educate people about normal patterns of infant crying and ways to cope with that crying. You can visit their website at www.purplecrying.info.   It stands for:

P : Peak of Crying – Babies cry the most in month 2, and then less by 3-5 months.

U: Unexpected – Crying can come and go, and you don’t know why.

R: Resists Soothing – Your baby might keep on crying no matter what you do.

P: Pain-like Face – Your baby might look like they are in pain, even though they are not.

L: Long lasting – Up to 5 hours a day or more.

E: Evening – Babies may cry longer in the late afternoon or evening.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention month. What can you do if you or your partner find yourself nearing that point of losing control? As I found out as a new parent that moment can happen in the blink of an eye. Understanding these normal patterns of infant crying, as well as the potential dangers can prove to be critical to preventing another needless tragedy of a shaking injury. Here are a few things that can be helpful to remember at those low points.

  • Babies cry a LOT. Up to 3 hours per day is considered typical, and some babies cry even longer every day.
  • Crying usually peaks at about 4-6 weeks of age, and gets better by about 12-20 weeks.
  • You can try soothing techniques like going outside, taking a bath, rocking, bouncing, or singing. Some techniques will work one day, and not the next. There is no magic bullet.
  • Your baby’s crying is NOT a reflection of your parenting skills.
  • You are NOT a bad person if the crying is bothering you.
  • Sleep deprivation that comes with the newborn stage may decrease your tolerance for dealing with a crying infant.
  • When you find yourself very frustrated, it is ALWAYS okay to put a crying baby down in a safe place (like his crib) and walk away. Take 10 minutes to calm yourself. Call a friend, step outside, take a shower.Take a Break2http://seattlemamadoc.seattlechildrens.org/infant-crying-colic-and-the-period-of-purple-crying/

To any parents out there who are currently in the PURPLE period, I feel your pain. I wish I could jump through my computer screen and give you a great big hug.  You are not doing anything wrong, you are not failing, and you are a good parent.  The best words of encouragement I can give you is that it will end, even at the times when it feels like it never will.  My little guy was a high needs, high crying baby who didn’t sleep more than a 3 hour stretch until he was 15 months old, but now he is one of the happiest kids that I know.  It will get better, it really will.  In the meantime, accept any help that is offered, rest when you can, and find the thing that makes you feel human and prioritize it in your day. For me, that meant taking a shower and changing clothes at least once every single day.  Above all, I hope that you will believe me that you are NOT a bad parent if you need to walk away from a crying baby.  In fact, by doing that you may be doing what the best parents do – protecting your child from harm.

Want more information? Check out these websites!



Sarah Bengtson
Sarah is a proud Iowa native who currently lives in North Liberty with her husband and 2 sons. She grew up in rural Benton county and moved to the Iowa City area in 2005 to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa in Physical Therapy. Now she balances raising two growing boys with a work as a pediatric physical therapist. Outside of work and family, Sarah loves music, playing her cello, running, baking, crochet, church activities, and cheering for the Hawkeyes and the Minnesota Vikings.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.