Shaken baby syndrome. The seemingly innocuous term doesn't begin to describe the horrible damage that can be inflicted by simply shaking an infant so that the baby's head flops back and forth, even a few times.

But the truth is that when an infant is shaken, the brain bangs against the inside of the skull, scrambling tissue, causing bleeding and swelling and possibly crushing the spinal cord. The baby's oversize head, undeveloped muscles and fragile, newly formed brain and blood vessels all combine to make possible damage more extreme than most people can imagine.

Sometimes babies are shaken by abusive caregivers, but more often the shaking happens when a parent or sitter becomes frustrated with a period of constant crying -- something that's normal for infants -- and reacts without thinking or without knowing what harm it can cause.

Tragically, shaken baby syndrome is on the increase, from 16 cases in 2005 to 48 in 2008. The recession is putting more stress on low-income and unemployed parents, so that number is likely to rise even higher. A third of shaken babies die and 80 percent of those who survive have permanent brain damage resulting in retardation, paralysis, blindness, deafness or some combination of those effects. At least 14 shaken babies have died in Utah since 2003.

That's why a new educational campaign launched by the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome in Ogden is so welcome. The campaign is called Period of PURPLE

Crying and is modeled after the successful national effort called Back to Sleep that educates parents about ways to prevent sudden infant death syndrome. That nationwide campaign is credited with helping cut deaths from SIDS by 50 percent since it began in 1994.

Utah, with the highest birth rate in the nation, is the first to introduce PURPLE Crying in all its birthing hospitals, 39 across the state. Now, funded by a private grant, the program is also reaching out to pediatricians, health departments, home nurses, adoption and foster-care agencies and the public. When a baby is born at one of the participating hospitals, the parents receive an 11-page booklet and 10-minute DVD that explain the danger of shaking and offer tips on caring for a crying infant.

The need for this campaign can't be overstated. Helpless infants and overstressed parents are vulnerable and need all the help they can get.