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Can bouncing a baby cause shaken baby syndrome?

Bouncing a baby on your knee or gently tossing a baby up in the air are common games parents play with their children. While these games are usually harmless fun, some people worry whether more vigorous bouncing or tossing could harm an infant. Specifically, they wonder if these actions could lead to shaken baby syndrome (SBS), a severe form of head trauma that happens when a baby is violently shaken back and forth.

What is shaken baby syndrome?

Shaken baby syndrome is a serious brain injury that happens when an infant or toddler is violently shaken. The shaking causes their fragile head to whip back and forth. This can damage blood vessels in the skull, brain, and eyes.

The main signs and symptoms of SBS include:

  • Extreme fussiness and crying
  • Trouble staying awake or loss of consciousness
  • Breathing problems
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Poor eating or sucking
  • Lack of smiling or vocalizing
  • Inability to lift the head
  • Irritability
  • Stiffness in the body
  • Bleeding in the eye

SBS usually happens when a frustrated caregiver shakes a baby violently in anger or frustration. Sadly, shaking is a common cause of abuse-related head trauma in infants.

Shaken baby syndrome can lead to lifelong disabilities and even death in some cases. Prompt medical care is crucial to prevent permanent damage or death.

Can bouncing cause SBS?

Vigorously bouncing or jostling an infant can potentially cause injuries similar to SBS in rare cases. However, most cases of SBS involve violent shaking or slamming that generates much more force.

Gently bouncing a happy baby on your knee or lightly tossing them up and catching them is harmless fun for most infants. The key is to be gentle, attentive, and stop if the baby seems distressed.

Some tips to bounce a baby safely:

  • Support the baby’s head, neck, and bottom when bouncing.
  • Keep the baby close to your body.
  • Bounce smoothly without any jerky motions.
  • Bounce for short periods and stop if the baby seems uncomfortable.
  • Never bounce a baby after a feeding – this can cause vomiting.
  • Avoid bouncing if the baby has a suspected head/neck injury.

As long as you are gentle and attentive, brief bouncing presents little risk for a healthy baby. But vigorous, extended, or rough bouncing may be dangerous. Watch for signs of distress like crying or vomiting.

Key differences between bouncing and SBS

There are some important differences between gentle bouncing and the violent shaking that causes SBS:

Bouncing Violent Shaking (SBS)
Gentle, rhythmic motion Forceful, jerking, back-and-forth motion
Baby is happy and comfortable Baby is often crying and distressed
Lasts for short time period Shaking may last over 15 seconds
Caregiver is attentive and stops if baby is distressed Caregiver may shake baby in anger and frustration
Head and neck supported Neck whipped violently back and forth

As this comparison shows, gentle bouncing is very different from the violent, extended shaking that causes SBS. Keeping activities gentle and paying attention to the baby’s signals are key.

Warning signs to stop bouncing

Stop bouncing a baby right away if you notice any of these warning signs:

  • Crying or signs of distress
  • Vomiting or spit-up
  • Baby seems scared, startled, or eyes look glassy
  • Baby’s head flopping backward
  • Baby arching back, stiffening, or extending arms/legs in discomfort
  • Baby seems sleepy, lethargic, or unresponsive

These are all clues that the baby is not enjoying the bouncing and you should stop immediately. Comfort the baby and watch for any worrying symptoms like vomiting or unresponsiveness. Call a doctor if you have any concerns about the baby’s well-being after bouncing.

Steps to bounce a baby safely

Here are some safe techniques for bouncing an infant without risking harm:

On an adult’s lap

Sit with the baby on your lap facing you. Place one hand behind the head, neck, and upper back. Place your other hand under the baby’s bottom and thighs. Gently bounce the baby a few inches up and down on your knees while supporting the head and neck. Keep the motions smooth and rhythmic.

On an exercise ball

Place the baby face down along your thighs as you sit on a large exercise ball. Keep one hand on the baby’s bottom and one hand supporting the head. Gently roll the ball forward and back to create a safe, swaying motion.

Laying down

Lie down and place the baby face down on your chest. Keep one hand on the back to support the head and neck. With your other hand, gently pat alternating cheeks on the baby’s bottom. This creates a gentle bouncing effect.

Standing up

Stand holding the baby facing you with hands under the armpits for support. Allow the legs to dangle freely. Lightly bounce up and down bending your knees to move the baby a few inches in each direction.

Always stop any bouncing if the baby seems uncomfortable. Avoid overly energetic, forceful bouncing. The key is being attentive and keeping motions gentle.

Risk factors that make bouncing unsafe

Certain medical factors can make an infant more vulnerable during bouncing:

  • Premature birth – Preemies have weaker neck muscles and delicate brains.
  • Low birth weight – Light babies have more fragile bodies.
  • Brain bleeds – Bleeding on the brain early in life raises SBS risk.
  • Weak neck muscles – Babies need strong necks to support heavy heads.
  • Brain or head abnormalities – Some conditions raise sensitivity to head motions.
  • After a feeding – A full stomach and active digestion can lead to vomiting if jostled.

If a baby has any of these risk factors, be even more careful and skip the bouncing completely. Check with a pediatrician before vigorous play.

Warning signs of potential injury

Stop bouncing and call the doctor if you notice any of these problems during or soon after bouncing your baby:

  • Excessive crying for over 10 minutes
  • Vomiting or gagging
  • Seizures
  • Bruising around face or eyes
  • Blurry or unfocused eyes
  • Lethargy or lack of responsiveness
  • Weak sucking or poor feeding
  • Irritability and high-pitched crying
  • Difficulty staying awake

Seek emergency care right away if your baby loses consciousness, will not wake up, or has difficulty breathing after bouncing.

When to avoid bouncing

It’s best to avoid bouncing in these circumstances:

  • Baby is fussy, crying, or showing distress
  • Baby has eaten recently – bouncing may cause spitting up or vomiting
  • Baby feels drowsy – bouncing may make them hard to wake up
  • Baby seems frightened by motion and height
  • Baby has a suspected head injury
  • Baby was born preterm or has medical conditions
  • Person bouncing is angry or impatient

Err on the side of caution if the baby has any signs of injury or distress. Stop immediately if the baby cries, gets sleepy, or vomits.

Alternative activities

If you want to skip the bouncing, try these equally fun, safe activities instead:

  • Reading books together
  • Gentle swaying side-to-side while holding baby
  • Mirror play – smiling and making faces at baby
  • Tummy time – supervised play while baby lays on stomach
  • Peaking games like peek-a-boo
  • Sing songs or play music
  • Infant massage

Any face-to-face interaction will help your bond with your baby. Keep things calm if your baby seems stressed.

The bottom line on bouncing safety

Brief, gentle bouncing of a happy baby is perfectly safe with proper precautions. Always support the head and neck, keep motions smooth, and stop immediately if the baby seems distressed. Vigorous, forceful bouncing that whips the baby’s head back and forth can potentially cause harm. But cautious, attentive bouncing poses little risk and can delight a baby.

Key tips:

  • Support head and neck
  • No jerky motions
  • Bounce for short periods
  • Stop if baby seems unhappy
  • Avoid after feeding
  • Check for medical conditions
  • Watch for warning signs like vomiting or crying

By being gentle and attentive, you can safely bounce and play with your happy, healthy baby. But always listen for signals to stop. With reasonable care, bouncing will delight your little one without causing harm.


Brief, gentle bouncing of an infant on a caregiver’s lap or knees is perfectly safe for most healthy babies and great way to interact and bond. However, vigorous, extended bouncing or shaking can potentially cause injuries like shaken baby syndrome. To bounce safely: Support the baby’s head and neck, keep motions smooth and rhythmic, bounce for short periods, and stop immediately if the baby seems distressed. Avoid risky bouncing completely if the baby has certain medical conditions. Watch for warning signs like vomiting or crying after bouncing and call a doctor if you have any concerns. With proper precautions, cautious bouncing is an enjoyable activity for babies and caregivers.