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Recession may have caused more infant abuse

It appears the economic recession has taken its toll on babies. Researchers have found the number of babies with severe head injuries nearly doubled in 2008 and 2009. Stress in the family seems to be a factor.

The trend came to light because early in the recession, doctors around the country were sharing notes. They all were noticing more babies seemed to be coming to emergency rooms with head injuries from child abuse. Dr. Ken Feldman a child abuse expert at Seattle Children's Hospital says these are cases where a baby, typically three-to-nine months old, shows up at the hospital with vomiting or seizures. Those are the mild cases.

"At the severe end, we have kids that are stopping breathing or who had cardiac arrest at home," says Feldman. "Many have associated bruises or broken bones."

He says doctors were puzzled, because some studies have shown overall child abuse was not increasing during the recession. There was no uptick in the number of cases reported to child protective services agencies.

Dramatic spike in incidents

So, pediatricians (including Feldman) decided to team up and count just traumatic head injury rates for children. They gathered data from hospitals, before and during the recession. They looked at four regions – one in Pennsylvania, two in Ohio, and the area from Seattle to Bellingham.

They found a dramatic spike. In Seattle, the rate doubled, from about 18 severe head injuries a year to 35 a year. Elsewhere it went up by 65 percent. A separate research team in Cleveland found the same thing.

'Incessant crying'

There’s no proof the recession caused the spike. But, this study (published in the journal Pediatrics)  fits what older studies have shown about the stress following natural disasters – a rise in abused babies during times of sudden stress. It fits what Feldman encounters at Seattle Children's:

"The vast majority of these are responses to infant crying."

Incessant crying is hard enough for parents to deal with in ordinary times – but it became that much harder for thousands of parents and caregivers coping with layoffs. In a typical scenario, he says, one parent lost his or her job and had to take over childcare.

"And the person who suddenly had to assume childcare activities, often was frustrated and emotionally unprepared to deal with a crying infant."

Just walk away

The biggest lesson: Teach parents that it's okay to walk away from a crying baby – to shut the door and cool down.

(This problem used to be called "Shaken Baby Syndrome," but pediatricians are avoiding that term, because most of the injuries are not literally from shaking the baby.)

As the number of layoffs has tapered off since 2009, the numbers of injured babies has gone down too.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.