Alpinist sentenced for shaking baby son to death

Erhard Loretan has been sentenced for shaking his baby son to death Keystone Archive

The Swiss alpine climber, Erhard Loretan, has been given a four month suspended sentence for shaking his baby son to death.

This content was published on February 11, 2003 - 21:13

Loretan had pleaded guilty to negligent manslaughter in the death of the seven-month-old child.

The court, at Bulle in canton Fribourg, also fined Loretan SFr1,000 ($730).

Loretan, who was charged with negligent homicide a year ago, admitted to shaking his baby for a couple of seconds to stop him crying.

He told police that he then put the child to bed and, shortly afterwards, the crying stopped abruptly. Loretan then called for an ambulance.

Despite the efforts of medical teams, the child died.

Shaken baby syndrome

The Loretan case has triggered a debate on babyshaking in Switzerland and has lead to new research on the subject.

A study, conducted by Zurich's children's hospital, found that one child in Switzerland suffers from shaken baby syndrome every month.

The parents are mostly unaware of the fatal consequences that can result from shaking an infant for just a few seconds, says Ulrich Lips, lead author of the study and head of the hospital's child protection unit.

"Everyone knows that you shouldn't hit a child, but not everyone is aware that shaking a baby - even for a few seconds - is far more dangerous and carries more long-term consequences," Lips told swissinfo.

The most cases occur when parents cannot cope with their child's crying, he says. "A crying baby is a great source of stress for the parents, especially the younger ones."

Lips says the study was launched in July 2002 when the Loretan case brought the issue into the public arena.

"We realised that we didn't know how common shaken baby syndrome was and that we needed to raise awareness," Lips explains, adding that he was not surprised by the results so far, which were in keeping with other cantonal figures.

Permanent damage

According to Lips, the vast majority of babies who are shaken suffer long-term damage as a result.

"Only 20 per cent of children who are shaken survive without any apparent neurological disorder," Lips told swissinfo. "Most of them end up with some form of permanent brain damage or disorders such as epilepsy or impaired eyesight."

In the worst cases, the child dies when the lesions to the brain are too severe, as in the Loretan case.

The reason shaking is so dangerous is because the neck muscles of babies under a year old are not capable of properly supporting their heads. Shaking can therefore cause the brain to move, causing ruptures and lesions.

The key to protecting babies is to make the general public aware of shaken baby syndrome, says Lips.

He adds that a nationwide poster and television campaign launched in 1997 has not been enough to bring numbers down.

"We need to stop child abuse in general and we need to target shaken baby syndrome in the campaign so that everyone knows about the dangers."

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

Key facts

One child suffers from shaken baby syndrome every month, according to a study by Zurich's children's hospital.
Only 20 per cent survive without long-term brain damage.
Parents are usually not aware of the harm they are inflicting.

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In brief

Loretan was charged with negligent homicide in January 2002, after his seven-month old son died after he had shaken him.

He admitted to the charges and says he wants to use the trial to campaign against shaken baby syndrome.

Loretan is one of the world's most famous mountaineers, having climbed all 14 of the highest Himalayan peaks (over 8,000 metres).

He was the first person to climb the highest peak in Antarctica, and has often been lauded for facing extreme and life-threatening situations in the mountains.

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