Relatively minor abusive injuries can precede severe physical abuse in infants. Our objective was to determine how often abused infants have a previous history of “sentinel” injuries, compared with infants who were not abused.


Case-control, retrospective study of 401, <12-month-old infants evaluated for abuse in a hospital-based setting and found to have definite, intermediate concern for, or no abuse after evaluation by the hospital-based Child Protection Team. A sentinel injury was defined as a previous injury reported in the medical history that was suspicious for abuse because the infant could not cruise, or the explanation was implausible.


Of the 200 definitely abused infants, 27.5% had a previous sentinel injury compared with 8% of the 100 infants with intermediate concern for abuse (odds ratio: 4.4, 95% confidence interval: 2.0–9.6; P < .001). None of the 101 nonabused infants (controls) had a previous sentinel injury (P < .001). The type of sentinel injury in the definitely abused cohort was bruising (80%), intraoral injury (11%), and other injury (7%). Sentinel injuries occurred in early infancy: 66% at <3 months of age and 95% at or before the age of 7 months. Medical providers were reportedly aware of the sentinel injury in 41.9% of cases.


Previous sentinel injuries are common in infants with severe physical abuse and rare in infants evaluated for abuse and found to not be abused. Detection of sentinel injuries with appropriate interventions could prevent many cases of abuse.

You do not currently have access to this content.