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Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff

Publication details for Prof Helen L. Ball

Ball, H.L. (2009). Airway covering during bed-sharing. Child: Care, Health and Development 35(5): 728-737.

Author(s) from Durham


Background Parent–infant bed-sharing is a common practice in Western post-industrial nations with up to 50% of infants sleeping with their parents at some point during early infancy. However, researchers have claimed that infants may be at risk of suffocation or sudden infant death syndrome related to airway covering or compression in the bed-sharing environment. To further understand the role of airway covering and compression in creating risks for bed-sharing infants, we report here on a sleep-lab trial of two infant sleep conditions.

Methods In a sleep-lab environment 20 infants aged 2–3 months old slept in their parents' bed, and in a cot by the bed, on adjacent nights. Infants' oxygen saturation and heart rate were monitored physiologically while infant and parental behaviours were recorded via ceiling-mounted infra-red cameras. Infants served as their own controls. Continuous 8-h recordings were obtained for covering of infant external airways, levels of infant oxygen saturation, infant heart rate, evidence of parental compression/overlying of infant, circumstances leading up to potential infant airway obstruction, and parental awareness of and responses to infant airway covering.

Results The majority of infants (14/20) spent some part of the bed night with their airways (both mouth and nose) covered, compared with 2/20 on the cot night; however, no consistent effect on either oxygen saturation levels or heart rate was revealed, even during prolonged bouts of airway covering. All cases of airway covering were initiated by parents; 70% were terminated by parents, the remainder by infants. Seven bouts of potential compression were observed with parental limbs resting across infant bodies for lengthy periods, however, in only two cases was the full weight of a parental limb resting on an infant, both events lasting less than 15 s, both being terminated by infant movement.

Conclusion Although numerous authors have suggested that bed-sharing infants face risks because of airway covering by bed-clothes or parental bodies, the present trial does not lend support to this hypothesis.