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What Are the Causes of Retinal Hemorrhages in Infants?

By Jessica Lietz ; Updated June 13, 2017

A retinal hemorrhage is a serious eye injury with long-term impacts on vision. Child abuse, accidental trauma and injuries, illnesses and congenital disorders all are causes of retinal hemorrhages in infants. Examination by an ophthalmologist is necessary to determine the cause. Babies with a retinal hemorrhage suffer from an increased risk of vision disorders, including vision loss.

Child Abuse

Retinal hemorrhages are a leading symptom of child abuse, according to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome. To determine whether child abuse caused the hemorrhage, an ophthalmologist dilates the baby’s pupils to conduct an exam. Certain clinical evidence from the eye exam provides medical proof of repeated rapid acceleration and deceleration in the eye from the baby’s body and head being shaken by an adult. This damage is different from other types of trauma or medical conditions. In addition to the ruptured blood vessels in the eyes, infants who survive shaken baby syndrome often experience damage to their optic nerves and suffer from long-term vision problems or vision loss, among other complications, the website says.


Non-abuse trauma to an infant’s head also can cause a retinal hemorrhage. If an infant is improperly restrained in his car seat during a motor vehicle accident, this sudden trauma can cause serious injuries, such as a retinal hemorrhage. Falls from a crib or baby walker are another cause of traumatic head injuries that lead to retinal hemorrhages. Injuries and trauma related to electric shock and extreme cold also can result in retinal hemorrhages in infants, explains the Cyber Sight website.


Infectious and congenital illnesses cause complications such as a retinal hemorrhage in some infants. Babies born with sickle cell disease, hemophilia or HIV sometimes develop retinal diseases and disorders such as hemorrhages, explains the Cyber Sight website. Acute illnesses such as influenza, mononucleosis and whooping cough can lead to retinal hemorrhages in some babies. Less commonly, fungal and bacterial infections such as yersiniosis, typhus and cryptococcosis also lead to retinal hemorrhages, although these conditions usually accompany immune system disorders.

Cardiovascular Disorders

Certain cardiovascular disorders in infants cause two types of retinal hemorrhages. Boat hemorrhages, which are ruptures of large veins between the retina and vitreous humor of the eye, result from thrombocytopenia or severe anemia, as well as sudden increases in pressure within the skull, which can result from brain infections. Flame hemorrhages also result from throbocytopenia, anemia and abnormally high blood pressure and involve rupture of small veins and arterioles, explains the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center website. These cardiovascular disorders result from problems during fetal development, childbirth or genetic disorders.

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