Sequential arousal and airway-defensive behavior of infants in asphyxial sleep environments

Anna S. Lijowska, Nevada W. Reed, Barbara A. Mertins Chiodini, Bradley T. Thach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

108 Scopus citations


Infants are prone to accidental asphyxiation. Therefore, we studied airway-defensive behaviors and their relationship to spontaneous arousal behavior in 41 healthy sleeping infants (2-26 wk old), using two protocols: 1) infant was rebreathing expired air, face covered by bedding material; and 2) infant was exposed to hypercarbia, face uncovered. Multiple measurements of respiratory and motor activities were recorded (video, polygraph). The infants' response to increasing hypercarbia consisted of four highly stereotyped behaviors: sighs (augmented breaths), startles, thrashing limb movements, and full arousal (eyes open, cry). These behaviors occurred abruptly in self-limited clusters of activity and always in the same sequence: first a sigh coupled with a startle, then thrashing, then full arousal. Incomplete sequences (initial behaviors only) occurred far more frequently than the complete sequence and were variably effective in removing the bedding covering the airway. In both protocols, as inspired CO2 increased, incomplete arousal sequences recurred periodically and with increasing frequency and complexity until the infant either succeeded in clearing his/her airway or was completely aroused. Spontaneous arousal sequences, identical to those occurring during hypercarbia, occurred periodically during sleep. This observation suggests that the infant's airway-defensive responses to hypercarbia consist of an increase in the frequency and complexity of an endogenously regulated, periodically occurring sequence of arousal behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-228
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1997


  • Accidental suffocation
  • Augmented breaths
  • Carbon dioxide response
  • Positional asphyxia
  • Sigh
  • Startle
  • Sudden infant death syndrome

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