The laryngeal chemoreflex may explain why prone sleeping increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Swallowing and arousal are crucial to prevent laryngeal chemoreflex stimulation. Our aim was to examine these reflexes and breathing responses in healthy neonates after pharyngeal infusion of water in the supine versus the prone position, controlling for sleep state.


A total of 10 term infants were recruited after parental consent and ethics approval. Polygraphic recordings included sleep state (active and quiet sleep by electroencephalogram, eye movements, breathing, and behavior), cardiorespiratory measurements (nasal airflow, chest wall movements, heart rate, and oxygen saturation), swallowing, and esophageal activity (solid state pressure catheter). Initial sleeping position was assigned randomly. Measurements were made for 1 minute before and after 0.4 mL of water was instilled into the oropharynx. To detect a 30% decrease in swallowing, power analysis indicated that ≥10 babies were required. Analysis, blinded to position, was made using nonparametric statistics.


Of the 164 infusions, the most commonly evoked airway protective responses to pharyngeal infusion were swallowing (95%) and arousal (54%). After infusion in active sleep, there was a significant reduction in swallowing and breathing when the prone position was compared with the supine position (prone: 21.3 [1.0] swallows/min and −9.6 [2.1] breaths/min; and supine: 32 (2.2) and −2.9 (1.5), respectively). However, there was no difference in the occurrence of arousal after water infusion.


These data suggest that airway protection is compromised in the prone sleeping position during active sleep, even in healthy infants exposed to minute pharyngeal fluid volumes of 0.4 mL. This is because swallowing rate is reduced significantly, and there is no compensatory increase in arousal. The reduction in airway protective reflexes when in the prone position and in active sleep may be the mechanism for the increased risk of SIDS in the prone position.

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