Children: Heartbeat may prove key to cot-death syndrome

Babies at risk of cot death may be identified in future by studying heartbeat, it emerged yesterday.

A United States mathematician has developed a way of measuring randomness that appears to offer a way to spot infants in danger. The system has already been used to pick out babies that have survived non-fatal episodes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

The method raises the possibility of screening infants for a tendency to experience periods of unusually regular heartbeat. Such infants could be fitted with monitors to detect episodes of extreme regularity and alert doctors or parents. Normally a heartbeat that seems on the surface to be regular actually beats in a complex irregular rhythm as it responds to incoming signals from the brain, muscles and digestive system. While the causes of cot-death are unknown, some doctors believe babies threatened by cot- death exhibit a strange tendency for their heartbeats to descend into a sinister pattern of regularity.

A report in New Scientist magazine said: "The technique doesn't yet offer foolproof detection, but through further refinement could become a powerful medical tool to help save infants from SIDS."

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