Objective. Supine sleep is recommended for infants to decrease the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, but many parents report that their infants seem uncomfortable supine. Many cultures swaddle infants for sleep in the supine position. Swaddled infants are said to “sleep better”; presumably they sleep longer or with fewer arousals. However, there have been no studies of the effect of swaddling on spontaneous arousals during sleep. Arousal is initiated in brainstem centers and manifests as a sequence of reflexes: from sighs to startles and then to thrashing movements. Such “brainstem arousals” may progress to full arousal, but most do not.

Methods. Twenty-six healthy infants, aged 80 ± 7 days, were studied during normal nap times. Swaddled (cotton spandex swaddle) and unswaddled trials were alternated for each infant. Sleep state (rapid eye movement [REM] or quiet sleep [QS]) was determined by behavioral criteria (breathing pattern, eye movements) and electroencephalogram/electrooculogram (10 infants). Respitrace, submental and biceps electromyogram, and video recording were used to detect startles and sighs (augmented breaths). Full arousals were classified by eye opening and/or crying. Frequencies of sighs, startles, and full arousals per hour were calculated. Progression of events was calculated as percentages in each sleep state, as was duration of sleep state.

Results. Swaddling decreased startles in QS and REM, full arousal in QS, and progression of startle to arousal in QS. It resulted in shorter arousal duration during REM sleep and more REM sleep.

Conclusions. Swaddling has a significant inhibitory effect on progression of arousals from brainstem to full arousals involving the cortex in QS. Swaddling decreases spontaneous arousals in QS and increases the duration of REM sleep, perhaps by helping infants return to sleep spontaneously, which may limit parental intervention. For these reasons, a safe form of swaddling that allows hip flexion/abduction and chest wall excursion may help parents keep their infants in the supine sleep position and thereby prevent the sudden infant death syndrome risks associated with the prone sleep position.

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