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Sleep. 1999 May 1;22(3):320-6.

Habituation of the infant arousal response.

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Washington University School of Medicine, Edward Mallinckrodt Department of Pediatrics/Newborn Medicine, St Louis, MO 63110, USA.



Arousal is considered to be an important protective response in a sleeping infant and its depression could leave an infant vulnerable to a life threatening stimulus. We found previously that arousal to a non-respiratory (tactile) stimulus occurs in a sequence of events that begins with spinal, followed by brainstem responses, and then a cortical electroencephalographic (EEG) arousal response. We hypothesized that repeated stimuli would depress the arousal responses by habituation and that spinal and brainstem responses would be more resistant to habituation than cortical responses.


We studied 22 normal infants.


The infants underwent polysomnographic monitoring during a daytime nap. Tactile stimuli was applied to the infants foot at 5-second intervals.


We found that spinal, brainstem, and cortical responses occurred on the first trial of each test. Repeated trials during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep resulted in a decrease in the incidence of each individual response and eventually elimination of the arousal responses. Cortical responses were eliminated first, followed by brainstem responses and finally spinal responses. The elimination of each of the responses occurred more rapidly during REM sleep that during NREM sleep.


Habituation of the infant arousal sequence occurs with repeated tactile stimulation. There is a serial habituation of responses from the cortical to the spinal level, which occurs more rapidly during REM sleep. Rapid habituation to innocuous stimuli is probably beneficial in avoiding detrimental sleep disruptions. However, in situations requiring the protective functions of arousal, such habituation could be detrimental to an infant.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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