Fractured Ribs in Infants

sleeping baby in hand of mother
The injury may be hard to identify. (Image: evgenyatamanenko/iStock/Getty Images)

A fractured rib is not always easy to identify, particularly when an infant can’t tell you what’s wrong. If your baby has trauma to the chest, always consult your doctor for prompt diagnosis and treatment. A cracked rib left untreated can do significant damage to your infant’s organs.

Identification

You might have no clue that your infant’s rib is fractured until a doctor performs an X-ray, CT scan or MRI to diagnose the problem. The area of the chest where the fracture occurred may be bruised, swollen and tender to touch. Your baby may wheeze while breathing or you might hear a crackling sound when she breathes. Deep breaths are painful, so your infant might seem irritable and fussy.

Cause

The majority of rib fractures on infants are caused by child abuse. Study results published in the journal "Pediatrics" in 2000 found that the broken ribs suffered by 32 out of 39 infants were due to child abuse; the ribs of three other infants were broken accidentally, one case was due to birth trauma and the other three cases were caused by rickets, osteogenesis imperfecta and being premature. Rib fractures can also be caused by severe coughing episodes, such as with whooping cough. It is rare that a rib is fractured during birth or CPR.

Treatment

Pain relief is usually the only treatment necessary. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen provide relief for infants, but always consult the infant’s pediatrician to determine the proper dosage, typically based on your baby’s weight. Ice applied to the fractured area for 10 minutes a few times per day reduces swelling and inflammation, but never apply the ice directly to your baby’s skin. Ensure the area does not get too cold. If the rib is cracked, surgery may be needed to reduce the risk of injury to vital organs or blood vessels.

Prevention

If you suspect an infant is being abused, contact your local department of human services. If you become frustrated with a crying baby, place your baby safely in the crib and call a family member or friend for help. It’s better for your baby to cry from his crib than for you to lose your patience and hurt your baby. If you have thoughts of hurting your infant, seek psychiatric help from a licensed mental-health therapist. To reduce the chances of accidental fractures, keep your house clean and free of clutter on the ground to prevent tripping or falling while holding your baby. Ensure that all rugs have a skid-proof bottom. Always keep your infant in a car seat in the car and ensure that the seat is secured to the vehicle’s interior.

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