Intended for healthcare professionals

Research Article

Apnoeic episodes induced by smothering: two cases identified by covert video surveillance.

Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 1987; 294 doi: (Published 27 June 1987) Cite this as: Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 1987;294:1637
  1. D P Southall,
  2. V A Stebbens,
  3. S V Rees,
  4. M H Lang,
  5. J O Warner,
  6. E A Shinebourne


    Recurrent cyanotic episodes associated on some occasions with loss of consciousness due to cerebral hypoxia were investigated by long term tape recordings of breathing activity, oxygen saturation, air flow, electrocardiographic activity, and in some cases electroencephalographic activity. In 51 infants and children the mechanisms for the cyanotic episodes were identified (prolonged expiratory apnoea in 45, sleep related airway obstruction in three, seizure induced apnoea in one, behaviour induced apnoea in one). In one child apnoea was suspected as being caused by suffocation (smothering) by the mother. This was confirmed after enlisting the help of the police, who undertook covert video surveillance during cyanotic episodes. Each cyanotic episode was associated with a pattern of disturbance on the multichannel tape recordings which may be pathognomonic of this type of apnoea. A second infant with cyanotic episodes in whom smothering was suspected was referred for similar investigation after the availability of video recordings became established. Maternal smothering was again supported by specific patterns on multichannel tape recordings and confirmed by video surveillance. Diagnosis by video surveillance produces unequivocal evidence in these cases and avoids the need for medical and nursing staff to confront the mother with a possibly incorrect suspicion or in a court of law.