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Positional Asphyxia in Infants – Know the Causes

Did you know that certain sleeping positions could actually kill an infant? Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But, this is very true as unsafe sleeping practices can cause sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Positional asphyxia in infants occurs when the baby sleeps in an unsafe position causing insufficient intake of oxygen while breathing. This often results in infant’s death. No wonder, wrong baby sleeping positions are often correlated with SIDs. Electric shocks, drowning, and inhaling toxic gases can also result in asphyxia.


Many times, it is observed that a baby sleeps with its face, particularly the nose, submerged in the bedding material. This position increases the likelihood of breathing problems. This is because, the exhaled carbon dioxide (CO2) while breathing does not escape and is more concentrated in the bedding material. As a result, large amounts of CO2 are inhaled, as compared to the oxygen intake. Now, if this condition continues for some time, the concentration of CO2 increases dramatically, which may lead to choking or suffocation.


This condition that impairs breathing can be avoided by following safe sleeping practices. One should ensure that the infant does not sleep on the stomach or face down. To reduce the occurrence of this condition that causes respiratory failure, the infant should not be allowed to fall asleep on the following unsafe locations:

  • Couches
  • Adult beds
  • Waterbeds
  • Pillows

Cribs that come with pillows, stuffed toys, soft mattress, and blankets are certainly not the best choice of baby bedding for infants. Infants sleeping with their face covered with a blanket (even if it is a baby blanket) is one of the major risk factors of suffocation. This happens because the blanket creates an oxygen deficient atmosphere that affects normal breathing.

Thus, it can be seen that proper care has to be taken, especially when the infant is sleeping, to avoid breathing problems. Making use of the right bedding material and paying attention to the sleeping position of infants can go a long way in preventing this condition.

Positional Asphyxia in Adults: Reasons

While infants seem to suffer from breathing problems due to wrong or bad sleeping positions, this condition can be caused in adults as well. The main causes of this condition in adults are related to excessive intake of alcohol, and accidents or trauma to the chest.

Alcohol: It is observed that abuse of alcohol makes a person lose consciousness and fall on the bed in a position that puts undue pressure on the chest. This abnormal body position can also interfere with normal breathing activity.

Excited Delirium: Excited delirium is a state of mind, in which the person behaves violently and has no control over his thought process. Such people are a nuisance and a threat to the society. Police officers often control these people by tying their wrists and ankles together and then forcing them to lie on the chest. However, this awkward strain to the chest can restrict breathing considerably. Deaths of quite a few criminals have been reported during such physical restraint by the police. After research confirmed that restraining violent people in such a manner could impair breathing, the law enforcement authorities have decided to avoid such physical restraint techniques.

Accidental Positional Asphyxia: This medical condition occurs when a person has met with an accident. Falling down from the stairs, or any other similar incident, which places undue weight on the chest can restrict breathing, leading to death.

On the whole, mechanical or positional asphyxia that disrupts breathing activity can always be prevented by not allowing babies to sleep in a face down position, while in adults care must be taken to avoid putting additional pressure on the chest area.

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