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Sleep position, autonomic function, and arousal
  1. B C Gallanda,
  2. G Reevesa,
  3. B J Taylora,
  4. D P G Boltonb
  1. aDepartment of Paediatrics and Child Health, Otago Medical School, POB 913, Dunedin, New Zealand, bDepartment of Physiology
  1. Dr Barbara Galland. E mail:bcgalland{at}


AIMS To investigate and compare heart rate variability (HRV) and responses of heart rate and arousal to head-up tilting in infants sleeping prone and supine.

METHODS Thirty seven healthy infants aged 2–4 months were studied. HRV was measured for 500 beats while they were in a horizontal position. Subjects were then tilted 60° head-up, and heart rate recorded over 1 minute and arousal responses observed. Data were collected during both quiet and active sleep for both prone and supine sleep positions.

RESULTS HRV, as assessed by the point dispersion of Poincaré plots, was significantly reduced in the prone position for both sleep states. Sleep position did not influence the changes in heart rate seen during a head-up tilt. Full awakening to the tilt was common in active sleep but significantly less so in the prone position (15% of prone tests vs 54% supine). Full awakening to the tilt rarely occurred during quiet sleep in either sleep position.

CONCLUSION This study provides some evidence that blunted arousal responses and/or altered autonomic function are a feature of the prone sleeping position. Decreased HRV may be a sign of autonomic impairment. It is seen in many disease states and in infants who later die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

  • heart rate variability
  • head-up tilting
  • prone position
  • supine position
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