Talking About the Unmentionable

While I was getting my morning coffee today, I noticed the lead story in one of the papers: “Killer Mum’s Baby Bid”.  It was the story of a mum of twins, who after killing one twin and causing the other to be permanently (and severely) disabled, pled guilty to infanticide.  She is now seeking access to her remaining child, access that the father is fighting.

The names are suppressed, so I cannot be certain, but I believe that this is the same mother of twin girls who pled guilty to one count of infanticide and one count of recklessly causing serious injury back in March this year.  One baby is dead and the other has permanent brain damage, cerebral palsy and cannot walk or talk.  Their mother admitted to police that maybe she “shook them too hard”.   Both girls had skull fractures and suffered bleeding to the brain.

One innocent little life extinguished almost before it began and another irreparably damaged… it is so tragic that it is hard to find the words.  And so mostly we don’t talk about it, except to express our shock and our horror, because it is genuinely hard to fathom how anybody, let alone a mother, could harm a baby. 

At the time of the trial, her barrister described her as a “broken woman” who was struggling to find a reason to live.  In handing down his judgment, Justice Bongiorno said no punishment he could hand down to the mother would be as severe as the punishment of having to live with what she had done to the twin girls. 

In memory of these little girls, I want to start a dialogue about the unmentionable… I’d like to talk about shaken baby syndrome and I want to bring out into the open the bad things that can happen when your gorgeous bundle of newborn joy… just isn’t joyful.  I know that its taboo, that it may feel like ‘tempting fate’… but I believe that the consequences of not talking about it are even scarier.  

Now, I do not pretend to know all of the facts of this particular case.  I’ve only read what was reported in the papers, including that the twins suffered from colic. When interviewed by police the mother said that the “girls were crying all the time and she didn't feel worthy of being a mum because she couldn't help them and they were always in pain.”  Those words resonated with me, because my son had colic too.  Colic – it is a small word for the ear piercing screaming, clenched little fists and the terrible grimace on his face.  

The generally accepted medical definition of colic is a baby who is otherwise healthy and has had all their needs met, but still cries for more than three hours a day, for more than three days in a week, for more than three weeks.  Colic is surprisingly common, but often you don’t hear much about it until it happens to your own baby.  Estimates vary widely from 5% to 40% of babies being affected, but a middle figure of around 20% is commonly accepted.  That’s one in five babies screaming inconsolably for over three hours a day… 

Before our son was born, my husband and I were fairly relaxed and reasonably confident.  A veteran auntie and uncle, we figured we’d changed our share of nappies and been puked on by our nephews & nieces often enough to have some idea of what the reality of a baby would be like.  HA - we had NO IDEA what we were in for! 

When the crying began we started out fairly chipper, we smiled at each other and reminded ourselves that we’d expected having a new baby wouldn’t be easy.  Then when the crying went on for days… and those days became weeks… that ‘chipper’ mood turned rather desperate.  

The crying was rough, really rough.  Somewhere very deep in my psyche I believed that a mother should be able to comfort her own baby.  So I felt utterly dreadful when nothing seemed to help.  Devastated.  With this terrible feeling that I was failing my baby, right from the outset.  The feelings were deep, primal and so powerful – and I hear those feelings echoed in the quotes from the mother of those twin girls…  That’s hard to admit, considering how tragically their story ended.  

Then I think about how hard it was for me and try to imagine how I would have coped if I’d had two of them with colic, instead of just one…  Would it have broken me too?   Could I have snapped and done something dreadful?  I’d like to think not, I’d like to think I’m genuinely incapable of that.  But, then I think, “well Jen, you had the most supportive husband anyone could wish for, and you had a mum & some sensational friends that really stepped up to help you survive it…”  Now I don’t know the full circumstances of this case, but the truth is that after my own experiences, I can see how it could be bad enough for someone to crack… 

Now please don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that colic is an excuse for ANY form of bad behaviour.  Violence to any person (including and especially babies) is completely unacceptable.  Completely unacceptable, no matter what the situation or provocation.  And just in case it needs to be said (although it is probably more than obvious here), you should never shake a baby (or child).  Not only can cause this your child serious harm, but it will not in any way help you stop their crying.  A colicky baby (at the age that colic occurs) is not in any way capable of understanding that this is intended as a “discincentive” to the crying.  And to be clear, that baby is crying because they are in genuine distress. 

However, what we need to recognise is how significant colic is as a risk factor in shaken baby syndrome.  Because it is no help to anybody judging after the event.  We need to help people BEFORE they get to the point that they snap.  That’s the only way to really make a difference.  

Again, I’m really conscious of how emotional and serious this issue is, so I want to be extremely clear: please don’t take this to mean that I’m condoning what happened in this particular case, including making any statement about what access this mother should or should not have to her surviving child. 

I simply want to highlight the risks when the wrong set of circumstances collide.  This is illustrated by a Canadian study from 2006 that showed a correlation between baby crying and the incidence of shaken baby syndrome.  This study noted that the “importance of crying as a stimulus to shaken baby syndrome may provide an opportunity for preventative intervention”. 

Parents of babies that cry excessively are suffering sleep deprivation, going through massive life changes, listening to a sound that we are biologically wired to find stressful, feeling helpless, exhausted and wondering if it will ever end, at the same time as enduring other fallout from the massive pressure that colic puts on family relationships.  Parents of colicky babies are often given simplistic and out of date information telling them that there is nothing that they can do except wait 3 months for it to pass, which robs them of hope and then effectively hands them a 3 month sentence to simply endure the torture. 

Three months doesn’t sound that long to a normal person, but when you are sleep deprived and the screaming lasts for hours at a time on a daily basis, it feels like an eternity that you might not be able to make it through.   All that is a great recipe for terrible things to happen, things that would never occur under other circumstances.  

It is critical that we start to talk about it, so that people realise how common colic can be, how stressful it is and make plans in advance for how they would cope if they get to the end of their tether.  Those ‘plans in advance’ are the key to averting real disaster. 

If we can talk about it, parents of colicky babies will know that they are not alone, they’ll have a chance to mentally prepare themselves and we can focus on getting people quality information about what they CAN do that can help their baby.  Because there are things that can help - it just doesn’t have to be as bad as it is for many people. 

For more information about colic and what you can do see Survivor’s Guide to Colic.

If you have any concerns about your baby’s health or the frequency or duration of your baby’s crying, please consult your doctor (please do not just assume your baby has colic because there are other serious medical conditions that can have similar symptoms). 

If you have any concerns or questions about postnatal depression or if you feel you are not coping with your baby’s crying, please reach out for help.  You can contact your doctor, PANDA: Post and Antenatal Depression Association: www.panda.org.au or Beyond Blue www.beyondblue.org.au.