Two years after launching a campaign to educate new parents about how much newborn babies cry, Dr. Desmond Runyan was eager to see its effect on the incidence of shaken-baby syndrome in our state.
Frankly, he was a little disappointed when he saw the numbers had taken only a small dip - "nothing like the 30 or 40 percent reduction we had hoped for."
Then, last week, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh released a study that gave Runyan important new context. The study showed that in three metro areas, emergency rooms had seen a dramatic increase in the number of shaken-baby cases since 2004. The researcher hypothesized that the increase - about 50 percent - was related to the recession, which put new parents under even more stress.
It was bad news for the nation - but potentially good news for North Carolina, which has the country's first public education campaign aimed at preventing shaken-baby syndrome.
"We still have some number crunching to do," said Runyan, a professor of social medicine and pediatrics at UNC-Chapel Hill, "but maybe we had more of an impact than we thought."
The campaign is called the Period of PURPLE Crying, and it is focused on a simple message: Babies cry - on average five hours a day.
Some babies cry even more.
What the campaign tells new parents is:
having a baby who's a "high crier" or colicky doesn't mean there's something wrong with the kid.
having a colicky baby doesn't mean there's something wrong with the parenting.
if a baby's inconsolable, it's OK to ask for help or to put the baby down safely in the crib and walk away for a few minutes.
This message can bring powerful relief to new parents, especially young, inexperienced parents who are overwhelmed and exhausted. It can be a baby's lifesaver when the stress of parenthood is compounded by job loss and economic hardship.
A mother's story
Jennipher Dickens wishes she and her then-husband had heard the PURPLE message back in 2006 when they brought their son Christopher home from the hospital in Bertie County.
A preemie, he was always a little fussy, Dickens said. That's why she didn't want him in day care quite yet.
"Therein lies the irony," said Dickens, who now lives in New York. "I was trying to protect him."
Dickens noticed a few bruises on Christopher's face at seven weeks. Then, one night, she noticed he was twitching. The doctor told her to come in the next morning. By the following day, Christopher was having seizures. Test results pointed to an unimaginable conclusion: Christopher had sustained brain damage from having been shaken, more than once.
"At first I thought those doctors were crazy," Dickens said.
Dickens and her now ex-husband, David Daughtrey, were young - 22 and 21, respectively - when Christopher was born. But they were educated. Daughtrey was the valedictorian of his class, a hard worker and an all-around nice guy, Dickens said.
"He was literally the guy who would walk a little old lady across the street," she said. "He was so sweet and kind. That's why at first I said, 'There's just no way he could have done this.'"
Unfortunately, even the kindest, smartest people can snap when confronted with a howling infant for hours.
Daughtrey is finishing two years in prison for felony child abuse.
Last month Dickens, who works for the Sarah Jane Brain Trust, a nonprofit group focused on brain injuries, successfully petitioned the court to terminate her ex-husband's parental rights.
What is normal
But Dickens wishes it hadn't ended this way. At age 3, her son can walk and talk but still exhibits the ill effects of the shaking. His words are hard to understand, and he has problems sleeping. Therapists say his balance will always be off.
Dickens believes the message of the PURPLE campaign is crucial because no one ever thinks that he or she, or anyone close, is capable of shaking a baby.
"You tell them, 'Don't shake your baby,' and they're offended," she said. "It's an affront.
"That's why it's so important to stress the normalcy of crying," she said. "It's OK to be frustrated. It's OK to put the baby down and walk away. That's the take-home message. I just wish it were in all 50 states."
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