Half as many babies and preschoolers in the United States are dying from abusive head trauma as in 2009, federal health officials reported Thursday.
Deaths of children under age 5 from this form of violence dropped an average 13 percent annually between 2009 and 2014, with the biggest falloff in the last two years of the study, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts said the statistics reflect good news — for the most part.
“I am heartened by the recent decrease in abusive head trauma, but one case is still too many,” said Rahil Briggs, director of pediatric behavioral health services at Montefiore Medical Group, in New York City.
Helping families get parenting support is the best way to prevent these deaths, Briggs and others agreed.
Abusive head trauma — often called shaken baby syndrome — is caused by direct trauma to the child’s head or severe shaking. Such injuries can lead to fatal skull fractures or bleeding in the brain, said study author Erica Spies, of the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention.
“Abusive head trauma is one of the leading causes of child maltreatment fatalities among infants and children,” Spies said.
Although the exact reasons for the decline in cases are unknown, Spies said that easing of economic pressures in recent years may have played a role.
National rates of abusive head trauma held steady from 1999 to 2009, and fell significantly after 2009, her team found.
Nearly 2,250 deaths of children under 5 from intentional head injury occurred between 1999 and 2014, the CDC said. Eighty-six took place in 2014 — down from 179 five years earlier, the report notes.
Head trauma accounts for about one-third of deaths from child abuse in the United States, the researchers said. It often occurs after an infant’s crying frustrates, angers or stresses parents, Spies said.
Showing parents and caregivers how to establish safe, secure and nurturing environments for children can help prevent these deaths, Spies said. In addition, parents can be taught safe ways to respond to persistent crying, she said.
To further reduce the chances of these deaths, experts recommend stepping up efforts aimed at prevention.
“Identifying parents likely to abuse their children is an important step in preventing abuse by helping them manage stress, instead of shaking the baby or throwing the baby against the wall,” said Dr. Barbara Pena, research director in the emergency department of Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, in Miami.
Although child abuse is seen in all types of homes, families at increased risk include those under the most stress, such as the poor and those “who are struggling with life,” she said.
“Providing moms with social workers or other support is essential,” Pena said. “Parents who feel stressed and unable to cope should reach out to their pediatrician or social agencies that can help.”
Briggs said that adding behavioral health services to primary care “is one of the best ways” to identify and help families at risk for abusive head trauma.
“We must increase our focus on prevention, including parent-child interventions that build on strengths and resilience, while teaching more effective ways to discipline children, manage stress and ensure positive outcomes,” Briggs said.
The new study appears in the CDC’s May 27 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. For the study, researchers used data from the National Vital Statistics System, 1999 to 2014.
For more on child abuse, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.