How can I tell whether my baby has been abused?
If your baby spends any amount of time away from you — whether it’s with a babysitter or a relative or at daycare — it’s natural to be concerned about his safety. And like any parent, you’ve probably wondered whether you’d be able to tell if your baby was being mistreated.
Some parents mistakenly overlook signs of abuse because they don’t want to face what’s happening. On the other hand, even when you do keep an eye out for physical symptoms and behavioral changes that may point to abuse, it can be tricky figuring out exactly what’s going on.
“You’re always playing a guessing game,” says Kathy Baxter, director of the San Francisco Child Abuse Council. “A baby could have many other reasons for being fussy or becoming withdrawn. But parents are really good at knowing their children, so you have to try to put together a picture and go with your gut instinct.”
Because your baby can’t tell you what’s going on, pinpointing abuse can be even more difficult than for an older child. What you can do is keep a close eye on your baby for signs that all is not well. Some parents discover signs of abuse — such as internal bleeding and injuries — only when they take their baby to the doctor because he won’t stop crying or is being excessively fussy.
Signs to watch for
A child who has been physically abused may:
- Cry and put up a fight when it’s time to go to daycare, or appear frightened around the caregiver or other adults.
- Come home with unexplained bruises, abrasions, burns, broken bones, black eyes, cuts, bite marks, or other injuries. Repeated injuries of any type can be a warning sign.
Keep in mind that signs of shaken baby syndrome (SBS), which most often happens to babies who are shaken in anger, can be minor or severe. (Shaken baby injuries usually happen to children who are younger than 2 years old, though the syndrome sometimes shows up in kids as old as 5.)
A baby with SBS may seem glassy-eyed, appear rigid, lethargic, irritable, have a decreased appetite, difficulty feeding, or vomiting. He may be unable to focus his eyes on an object or lift his head. In severe cases, he may have difficulty breathing, or he may have seizures, heart failure, coma, and unconsciousness.
If you suspect your baby is suffering from SBS, call 911 right away. Every moment counts in terms of the damage a baby with SBS will suffer.
A baby who has been emotionally abused may:
- Display behavioral problems or changes such as shunning a parent’s affections — or, alternately, becoming excessively clingy.
- Have a loss of appetite.
- Have nightmares or trouble sleeping.
A baby who has been sexually abused may:
- Have bleeding or bruises in or around the genital area.
- Have difficulty sitting, possibly because of genital or anal pain.
- Suffer from urinary tract infections.
If you have any concerns about the possibility of abuse, don’t delay action. The sooner you address the problem, the better for your child. Here’s what to do if you suspect child abuse.
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