Death by Overlaying and Wedging: A 15-Year Retrospective Study

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Overlaying, the accidental death by smothering caused by a larger individual sleeping on top of an infant, is a cause of death that has been documented for centuries. The hazard of death has been reported to be greater in infants less than 5 months of age but may occur in children up to the age of 2 years. When an adult or older child rolls on top of an infant, mechanical asphyxia results. The face may be pressed into the mattress or into the body of the sleeping adult or older child. The infant’s air may be expressed, and he or she is unable to cry due to pressure on the thorax and the inability to inhale. Some pathologists and investigators believe that the victims of overlaying have no pertinent physical findings at autopsy and that any injury is indicative of inflicted trauma. Others believe that one may see contusions and abrasions from overlaying in and of itself. Wedging is another form of accidental mechanical asphyxia that may have negative autopsy findings. The prevalence of bruising, contusions, or facial and ocular petechiae is not clear.The author reviewed all pediatric forensic cases referred for autopsy to the Forensic Section of the Medical University of South Carolina/Medical Examiners’ Office over the past 15 years, from 1985 to 1999. Of these, all cases of overlaying, cases listed as undetermined sudden infant death syndrome versus overlaying, and wedging were included. The cases were analyzed as to victims’ age, sex, race, location/bedding, bed-sharer, and whether the bed-sharer was known to have ingested drugs or alcohol before sleep. Postmortem physical findings were also reviewed, particularly for documentation of contusions, abrasions, or facial or ocular petechiae. By clarifying not only the victim, bed-sharer, and scenario but also the presence or absence of physical findings in cases of overlaying, wedging, and other accidental asphyxia, we can better categorize these cases.

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