It is easy to say that we should be preventing child abuse. It’s much harder to do it – particularly in the current climate where scarce resources are often focused where things are already going wrong.
However, new research shows that sometimes prevention can be easy: short, simple messages for new parents can prevent abuse to babies.
Shockingly, babies are much more likely to be killed than other children. The latest homicide statistics show that in a third of all murders of children under 16 in the UK, the victims were aged under one.
The most common cause of death in babies is abusive head trauma – the injuries that are caused when a baby is shaken, hit or thrown.
It will seem obvious to anyone reading this that it is wrong to shake a baby. But sadly, that’s not something that all new parents know.
Five American studies found that between 25 and 50 per cent of people did not know about the dangers of shaking a baby. Some respondents in these studies even admitted to shaking a baby, unaware of the harm this might have caused.
It seems hard to believe that just telling parents that babies are fragile would change anything, but it makes an enormous difference.
In the US a programme to educate all new parents about the dangers of shaking a baby reduced the incidence of abusive head trauma by 47 per cent. It’s amazing that a simple message can have such a huge impact.
We know that in many cases when babies are abused, the ‘trigger’ for that abuse is often the baby’s crying.
Excessive crying is given as a common reason for perpetrating child abuse in infants and high proportions of parents whose babies cry excessively report feelings of aggression towards their baby, even if they never act on these feelings.
Research shows us that we can’t predict which parents will shake their babies.
It’s important to remember that it can happen to anyone, although some babies such as those whose parents have substance misuse problems, mental illnesses, are experiencing domestic abuse and/or have a history of violence are more at risk.
There are three main reasons that crying can push parents to breaking point:
- When tired, the noise of a crying baby and the frustration at not being able to stop this crying can increase parents’ stress levels to unmanageable levels.
- Some parents feel that the crying is an indication that there is something wrong with their baby or with their own parenting skills, and this leads to strong emotional feelings of guilt and anxiety.
- Others parents, particularly those who are not attuned to their baby’s feelings and have a poor understanding of child development, may think that their baby is crying deliberately to manipulate them and will react angrily to this.
Supporting parents to cope with crying
To support parents to cope with crying we must reassure them that crying is normal; give them tips to soothe their baby, and help them to understand that crying is simply babies’ way of communicating at birth and that very young babies cannot control when they cry.
Young babies should not be left to cry regularly as repeated exposure to high stress levels can be damaging to their developing brains. However on rare occasions this can be the best thing for their parents to do.
Parents need to know that if they are getting stressed with their baby, then it’s ok – in fact it is essential – to put their baby down in a safe place and calm down.
All of these messages – information about the dangers of shaking a baby and advice about crying – are incorporated into a new Coping with Crying film from the NSPCC.
The film has been shown to 30,000 new parents in hospitals over the last two years. Recently published evaluation results suggest that parents who see the film have a better understanding of how to cope with crying and of the dangers of shaking, and that their babies are safer as a result.
The film is now being piloted in other settings, such as antenatal education and postnatal home visits. We hope that it will be widely available in the future after this pilot period is complete.
If you are not in one of the 30 areas of the UK that are currently using the film, but you are working with new parents and want to do more to prevent abuse of babies, the five key things that you can tell parents are:
- Babies are fragile. Handling a baby roughly or shaking them can cause death or serious disability.
- Crying is a normal part of babies’ development, and some babies will cry a lot during the first three months of life. Sometimes babies cry for no apparent reason and can be difficult to soothe.
- There are many different ways to soothe a baby. Over time you can learn what makes your baby cry, and what helps to soothe them.
- It’s normal to be frustrated when your baby cries and no one will judge you if you need to ask for help.
- If you are frustrated with your baby’s crying, it’s important to take the time to calm down. Put you baby down in a safe place and walk away for a few minutes until you feel better.
Sally Hogg is the development Manager for Children Under One at the NSPCC