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Three things parents can do to keep their child safe from child abuse

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  January 23, 2013 11:25 AM

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The news of the Cambridge toddler that recently died from injuries has parents terrified.

While this is really understandable, I think that instead of just being terrified we should use this as a moment to really think about what we can do to keep children safe from child abuse. While nothing can prevent all abuse, there are things that parents can do. Here are three: 

Never shake a baby. Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), which is when children are shaken hard enough to cause brain damage, is the leading cause of child abuse death in the United States. The most common reason SBS happens? Inconsolable crying. When you mix a baby that won't stop screaming with a stressed-out, overwhelmed caregiver, bad things can and do happen.

If you've got a baby that screams a lot, check in with your doctor--but often it's just normal crying. And in those cases, you need to take care of not just your baby but yourself. Sometimes the best way to care for both of you is to put the baby in a safe place, like his crib, and take a moment to calm down. Here in Massachusetts, you can call the Parental Stress Hotline at 800-632-8188. 

Make sure that everyone who cares for your child knows the dangers of shaking. To learn more about SBS and how to prevent it, visit the CDC's Heads Up: Prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome website.

Know the signs of child abuse. It's not always obvious. The Department of Health and Human Services has a fact sheet that has all sorts of information about recognizing abuse and neglect, but here are some of the signs that parents and caregivers should watch for:
  • Any unexplained bruise or other injury (or an explanation for one that doesn't make sense)
  • Frequent bruises or injuries, even if an explanation is given
  • Changes in behavior, such as acting withdrawn, sad, angry or afraid. An occasional off day is usually normal, but if the changes are persistent or recurrent it could be a sign of a problem.
  • Changes in appetite or sleep (including trouble falling asleep, nightmares, or bedwetting). Again, only worrisome if persistent--and there can be lots of other explanations.
  • Behaviors or statements from children that are odd or not normal for their age (like talking about sex)
  • Negative comments about the child from the parent or caregiver--and/or lack of nurturing/happy interactions with child
  • The child expresses fear or dislike of the parent/caregiver
Remember--these are just a few of the signs, and could have other explanations. But if you see them, let someone know--like your doctor, or the Department of Children and Families.

Check out all your child's caregivers thoroughly. If you use a daycare center or family daycare, be sure that they are licensed--and check with your local licensing board to find out if there have ever been any concerns or complaints. If you use a nanny or babysitter, do background checks--including in other states the person has lived. Since most child abuse happens when a child is left alone with a caregiver, doing your homework is really important. Get plenty of references. Ask lots of questions--and be sure you communicate with them regularly about your child's behavior and needs. Ask friends and neighbors who might interact with the nanny or babysitter to keep an eye out and let you know if anything concerns them--and make surprise visits regularly. 

It's impossible to know everything about anybody, no matter how well you do your homework--that's what so scary about this. Keeping your antennae up can help; if for any reason something about a caregiver doesn't feel quite right to you, listen to that feeling. Don't ignore it. It's always better to be safe--after all, nothing will ever be more important than your child.

For more about how all of us can help to prevent child abuse, visit the website of Prevent Child Abuse America.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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