Starting tomorrow, all parents of newborns at Winchester Hospital will receive training on how to quiet their crying babies - and how to keep themselves from lashing out in ways that could damage babies' brains or even kill them.
The hospital is the first in Middlesex County to adopt the training program on shaken baby syndrome. Melrose-Wakefield, Cambridge, and Newton-Wellesley hospitals plan to launch similar programs this spring.
Medical personnel, child advocates, and Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. hope eventually to bring the program to all the county's birthing hospitals as part of a countywide initiative. By intervening when children are born, they hope to give parents the tools to calm the cries that sometimes drive a parent desperate and can result in the injuries. In the process, they hope they can also teach parents coping methods to stop other forms of child abuse that affect older children when their caregivers can't cope.
"Nobody plans to shake their baby," said Dr. Karen McAlmon, a neonatologist and the medical director of Winchester Hospital's special care nursery. "It happens in a moment of frustration."
In an unusual turn, Leone, the Middlesex district attorney, helped bring together the hospitals last fall, in the hope that he will not need to prosecute more parents and caregivers who kill infants.
In 1997, Leone, then an assistant district attorney, prosecuted the case against Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British nanny, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 8 1/2-month-old Matthew Eappen of Newton.
"As a prosecutor, I have seen firsthand the tragic impact instances of shaken baby syndrome have had on parents and families," Leone said via e-mail. "The sad reality is that each and every instance of shaken baby syndrome is a purely preventable tragedy."
District attorneys in Worcester and Hampden counties have also been involved with prevention efforts there.
"They are the ones who try these very tragic cases," said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a statewide child advocacy organization based in Boston that helped coordinate the training. "They're seeing the loss of life. They're seeing the children who are surviving with tremendous mental handicaps. They really have been on the front lines."
Shaken baby syndrome mainly affects babies less than a year old and occurs when babies are shaken back and forth or slammed down. Infants have immature brains and limited control of their heads, McAlmon said, so the movement creates a type of whiplash that can cause permanent brain damage.
It's not clear how many children are affected each year, experts say, as the injuries are underreported and sometimes misdiagnosed. McAlmon said studies suggest that about a quarter of those infants who suffer from it die.
And those who do survive can experience a range of short- and long-term problems, including learning disabilities, seizures, blindness, and cerebral palsy.
Fathers, stepfathers, and boyfriends are responsible for an estimated 58 percent of cases, McAlmon said. But mothers and other caregivers also cause the injuries. And babies from every socioeconomic background are affected.
"All people who have contact with children are potential offenders of shaken baby syndrome," McAlmon said.
At Winchester Hospital, nurses already educate parents on how to bathe newborns and how to feed them. But now they will talk to each family about the dangers of shaking a child. Parents will watch a video, and be given brochures to share with others who may care for the child.
The goal is to show parents how to calm crying babies with such strategies as breast-feeding, skin-on-skin contact, and gentle rocking motions. They will be advised, too, to take a break when the baby can't be soothed - and before the cries fray nerves to the breaking point.
"Babies have never died from crying," Bernier said. "But they have from being slammed or shaken by parents who don't know they can step away."
Bernier's group developed the training program. It was adopted in Worcester County after three infants died within six weeks in 2001.
Now Winchester Hospital will be the 10th hospital in the state to adopt it.
But eventually, all 51 of the state's birthing centers need to include some type of program to fight the syndrome, Bernier said.
By July, the state Department of Public Health expects to have trained and helped all the centers comply with a statewide prevention bill signed into law in 2006.
Kytja Weir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.