‘It was just one shake’ — (The Guardian)

SSRI Ed note: Exhausted new mom, single, has trouble coping with fussy baby. GP prescribes antidepressants, she shakes baby to death, charged, convicted. A/D not suspected.

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Chelsea hardly stopped crying in the 15 weeks leading up to her death in April. One day, Hargreaves, who was alone at the time and suffering from post-natal depression, snapped. Unable to calm the baby, she picked her up and shook her. Chelsea died in hospital the following day.

Last week, Hargreaves, a trained nursery nurse, was given a three-year probation order by Leeds crown court after pleading guilty to infanticide. Expressing sympathy, the judge acknowledged her remorse.

Hargreaves, now 24, became pregnant after a brief relationship with the baby’s father. He was not aware of the pregnancy and played no part in Chelsea’s short life. Her waters broke five weeks early on December 28 last year and she was taken into Pinderfields hospital, Wakefield. The following day at 9.41pm she gave birth to Chelsea, who had problems breathing.

Although Hargreaves had just gained a diploma in childcare studies, she had more experience with toddlers and school-age children than with infants. “At first, Chelsea was the most perfect baby,” recalls Hargreaves, “who never cried unless she wanted feeding. When she was awake, she was perfectly happy and contented and she didn’t need to be picked up and held all the time.”

All that changed when Chelsea was five-and-a-half weeks old. “She started screaming at dinnertime and she wouldn’t stop,” says Hargreaves. “She wouldn’t take her feed and I tried changing her and cuddling her, but she wouldn’t stop crying. It was a completely different cry to what I had heard before – it was like she was in pain.”

Hargreaves is smartly dressed in a grey roll-neck jumper and black trousers. Though frank and articulate, she seems nervous about discussing what happened to her baby. She is painfully thin. Despite her freckles and long chestnut hair, she looks older than her 24 years.

“I went and talked to the health visitor and she said it might be colic. So we tried different colic drops, none of which worked. We laid her on her tummy, but that didn’t work – and the crying just seemed to get worse and worse. She continued to refuse her feeds and her weight gain started to drop.”

Hargreaves became exhausted and frustrated: the worst feeling was uselessness at not being able to settle her baby. Chelsea cried incessantly. At most, Hargreaves was getting a couple of hours of sleep at night and during the day.

Hargreaves attended a baby clinic every week with Chelsea and talked about her concerns. A health visitor suggested the baby might be allergic to cow’s milk, so she switched to soya milk. It worked for a few days, but Chelsea soon became irritable again. The health visitor suggested aromatherapy massage and swaddling, which made Chelsea feel secure for a few minutes, but didn’t last.

Hargreaves is not particularly close to her parents but used to meet her mother once a week in Wakefield. Her parents bought things for Chelsea and her mother knitted for her. “I am a person who tries to cope – that is the way I have been brought up. It is very difficult to pick up the phone when you are trying to soothe your own baby.”

But Hargreaves was not coping. She was prescribed anti-depressants by her general practitioner. “I felt I was in a deep hole and couldn’t get out. It all felt as if it was never-ending. I remember my health visitor saying there would be an end one day when she gets older, but I couldn’t believe it,” she says.

Chelsea was admitted to hospital for observation in March because of her incessant crying. “By this point I was really down and felt really alone,” says Hargreaves. “The hospital staff said they thought her inability to settle was down to my anxiety. When I needed help, they were telling me my illness was causing her crying.”

On April 12, the day she shook Chelsea, she had been to the baby clinic and spoken to her health visitor. The baby had been crying constantly all the day. “I had hit rock bottom. I asked the health visitor if adoption agencies were listed in the Yellow Pages because I couldn’t cope any more. I think she tried to brush it off really.”

“It was just one shake that I remember and it wasn’t even very hard or violent. It was more out of frustration than anything. It didn’t stop the crying and afterwards I felt really bad about it and immediately gave her a big hug. She seemed to be OK and then I went to change her nappy and laid her on her changing mat and she stopped breathing.

“I picked her up, thinking she must be choking. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she had gone stiff. She was making a choking and gasping noise. I just picked up the phone and called an ambulance. At the time I was panicking because my baby was not breathing. I didn’t really link it with me shaking her. I tried to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I was in the worst panic you could imagine.”

Chelsea was transferred from Pinderfields hospital to Leeds general hospital. Questioned by the medical staff, Hargreaves was too scared to say she had shaken Chelsea and instead said she had suddenly developed breathing difficulties. “I didn’t want it to be my fault,” she says. “The fact that I had caused my baby’s death was too much for me to cope with. I was in a complete state of shock. I just wanted them to say it was something else. She was on a life support machine that night and I just wanted a miracle to happen so that everything would be OK, although I had been told right from the beginning that there was no chance for her.

“She was in a cot with wires attached to every part of her body and I just touched her cheek, talked to her and held her hand.”

The next day Hargreaves was questioned by police, but didn’t mention shaking Chelsea. Three months after the baby’s death, the results of the autopsy were released. They revealed that the baby had been shaken. The police contacted her again. “That was when it hit me that it was my fault, that I had caused her death,” she says. “It was very difficult to admit what I had done, but I told my solicitor, then I confessed to the police.”

After being charged with infanticide, Hargreaves’s depression worsened and her medication was increased. She became too anxious to leave the house and mostly stayed in bed. “I wanted to die as well as Chelsea,” she says.

On July 10, the evening of her daughter’s funeral, she took an overdose of her prescription tablets. As a result, she spent 12 days being treated in a psychiatric unit.

Hargreaves says she doesn’t know how she is going to rebuild her life. Her career is destroyed – she can no longer work in childcare, the only career she ever wanted. She eventually wants more children, but accepts she will be closely supervised. “I want children in the future, but it is something that also scares me,” she says. “I absolutely wish that all the support I have now was there before – but it is too late now.” Hargreaves has a psychiatrist, a community psychiatric nurse, a social worker and a probation worker working with her.

Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychotherapist at Broadmoor hospital, says: “Thousands of women suffer from post-natal depression, but they don’t all go on to kill their babies. But children who are premature are more at risk because it often makes them irritable and they may cry more.

“For the first four to six weeks it can be dreadful, with no sleep and the loss of social structures. We have to take the process of being a parent more seriously because it is not always going to be joyful and a treat – it is a proper job and should be treated as such.”

This is cold comfort for Hargreaves, who smiles only when she looks at photographs of her daughter. “I still think about Chelsea all the time,” she says. “I dream about her and sometimes I wake up and forget that she is dead. I think she is still in her moses basket and open my eyes and she is not there.”