Activate award winner Suzanne Smith: protecting infants from Shaken Baby Syndrome

The problem

Shaken Baby Syndrome occurs when a child under four years of age is shaken violently, typically by a parent or carer, causing brain damage and possibly death. The most common trigger for this is when a child cries. This is also known as abusive head trauma. Around 18-25% of under-ones shaken this way will die from their injuries, while up to 80% of survivors will be left with cognitive and neurological impairments and problems to their hearing and sight.

The Activate award

Child protection expert Suzanne Smith has been given a grant from the Activate Fund to expand ICON, her prevention programme to stop abusive head trauma. ICON is currently the only programme of its kind in the UK. As part of NHS England’s Covid-19 emergency planning arrangements, part of the ICON programme has been rolled out nationally to all maternity units, in recognition of the extra stress that families are under during lockdown.

ICON is a mnemonic providing a simple four-point message – that Infant crying is normal, Comforting methods can help, it’s OK to walk away, Never, ever shake a baby. This message is delivered to parents via GPs, midwives and healthcare professionals, at specific points before and after the birth of a child, as well as via educational resources and a website offering advice for parents on how to cope with a crying baby.

The Activate award will contribute to an evaluation of the programme and continue an already successful social media campaign to reach men. Reaching men is important as 70% of babies who are shaken are shaken by men. In addition, the grant will support the recruitment of a co-ordinator to assist UK regions that have commissioned ICON and to maintain the integrity of the programme for maximum impact.

The award recipient

Suzanne was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2016 to explore programmes in the USA and Canada that are successfully reducing the level of Abusive Head Trauma in infants. On her return, Suzanne was inspired to develop her own pioneering programme in the UK. The result was ICON, the first ever co-ordinated UK programme aimed at helping parents and carers to cope with a crying baby, thereby preventing cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Suzanne steers the development of the programme in her own time, in addition to her job as Executive Director for Barring and Safeguarding at the Disclosure and Barring Service.

Today ICON has spread to 15 regions of the UK, including Lancashire, Gloucestershire, Southampton, Sussex, York and North Yorkshire. Suzanne’s aim is to fully embed ICON within health and social care delivery across the whole of the UK, supported by a firm evaluation programme and professional management. She wants to ensure that all carers are able to cope with a crying baby and that those who feel like they are approaching the urge to shake a baby remember the ICON message - and don't.

The Activate Fund

Suzanne’s award is a grant from the Activate Fund. This is a new programme from WCMT which supports the activation or acceleration of Churchill Fellows’ projects. It provides dedicated funds, advice and support during the key period when Fellows first return from their research overseas, and start to make change happen in the UK.

The Activate Fund is a three-year pilot project, making its first grants in 2020. The Activate grants total £101,000, making an average grant of £14,400. The scheme has been developed in consultation with Fellows, to respond to their practical needs.

View Suzanne Smith's profile

Fellows wishing to apply can find out more in the Fellows’ area of our website.

Suzanne’s Fellowship was in partnership with the Wave Trust.

Find out more about the Activate Fund

Read Suzanne's report