An American study that says babies are more vulnerable to serious brain injuries when they fall than previously believed may help child abuse investigators distinguish between accidental and intentional injury.
The University of Pennsylvania study found that rotational forces generated by a baby's head hitting a hard surface can cause widespread, potentially serious brain injuries. These can include internal bleeding, which can damage tissue and alter brain function, and nerve cell damage, which can impair thinking, sensation and other mental functions.
"We found that when the head contacted a firm surface before the body, significant rotational motions were produced," researcher Susan Margulies says in a news statement.
Margulies and her colleagues used an infant crash test dummy resembling a 6-week-old infant to measure the rotational forces experienced by falling babies. The dummy was equipped with sensors to measure rotational velocity and acceleration.
"Traumatic brain injury is the most common cause of death in childhood, and child abuse is believed to be responsible for at least half of infant brain injuries. While accidental falls are a frequent cause of pediatric trauma, they are also a common explanation given by caretakers in suspected abuse cases," Margulies says.
Her research may eventually help child abuse investigators distinguish between accidental falls and injuries suffered by children whose heads are intentionally struck against a hard surface. But Margulies says more research is needed before such distinctions are clear.