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Nazila Sharaf, 35, Dublin

LIVERMORE -- An age-old technique used to lull newborn infants to sleep put seven babies' lives in danger when two sisters who ran a day care center bound the infants' bodies so tightly they had trouble breathing and couldn't move their arms and legs, police said Wednesday after the women were arrested on felony child abuse charges.

Sisters Nazila Sharaf, 35, and Lida Sharaf, 33, were arrested at their respective homes in Dublin and Mountain House after the Alameda County District Attorney's Office issued two felony arrest warrants in response to a 100-page case filed by the Livermore police department, Officer Steve Goard said.

Doctors examined all of the children who were at the daycare center, and none showed any signs of injury related to the alleged abuse, Goard said.

Each woman was charged with three counts of felony child abuse and neglect and four counts of misdemeanor child abuse and neglect. State authorities closed their facility, Universal Preschool LLC, at 1040 Florence Road, on March 15, and are seeking to permanently revoke their license.

Investigators said that both Nazila and Lida Sharaf are suspected of tying blankets around seven infants between 7 months and 11 months old so tightly that the babies' ability to breathe was restricted. In addition, the swaddling restricted the babies from being able to move their arms and legs. The women reportedly then secured the wrapped blankets with heavy-duty knots for what was described as a "lengthy" period of time, Goard said.

Police also learned that the women sometimes threw blankets over the children's faces while the infants had their arms and legs bound, rendering the babies virtually incapable of rescuing themselves if they needed air. Perhaps most disturbingly, Goard said, is that of the seven children identified in the case, both Sharafs knew that three of the babies had upper respiratory conditions.

"They basically restrained these children, almost like a boa constrictor," Goard said. "All of these children could have died in the process of binding these extremities."

Thirty parents of 19 infants were interviewed during the investigation, Goard said.

Police began investigating the pair March 15, after the Department of Social Services requested their assistance in closing the center. Social Services reported finding multiple licensing violations during an unannounced visit March 12, including inappropriate swaddling techniques.

Swaddling is a common technique used on newborns where a caregiver wraps the infant in a blanket in a snug yet comfortable way to reassure them and help them fall asleep, officials said in reference to pediatric experts. The technique is usually intended for newborns between 1 and 2 months old.

Hospital nurses often teach the technique to parents of newborns as a way to help soothe a child, but only during the first few weeks of life, said Dr. Gena Lewis, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Oakland.

"It's not recommended at all beyond the second month of life," Lewis said. "And it has to be done in a careful way so babies don't suffocate. It's certainly not safe to swaddle a child beyond two months of age."

Some people believe that swaddling makes infants feel like they are back in the womb. But if it is done during the first month of life, it should involve a loose wrap and the cloths should never be tied with knots, Lewis said.

Placing a blanket over a child's face can risk suffocation, Lewis noted. For that reason, experts recommend against putting heavy blankets or pillows in an infant's bed.

A pediatrician consulted by Livermore police told investigators that what the Sharafs were calling a swaddle was too tight to be considered as such, and that he felt what they were doing was more a form of restraint.

Livermore Police Detective Cindy Moore submitted the case to prosecutors Tuesday, and the arrest warrants were served on both Sharafs on Wednesday.

"There was excellent detective work on this case," Goard said. "Detective Moore spoke for these children that couldn't speak for themselves."

Universal Preschool is an independent preschool, not affiliated with the Livermore school district. It is housed in an infant center and day care with a combined capacity of 42 children.

The visit by Social Services was prompted by a report from a 19-year-old former employee, who worked there for two weeks and quit in disgust, Goard said.

"She really fought to get this exposed, and was an incredible witness," Goard said. "It led to an excellent case"

According to Goard, Lida Sharaf operated another child care facility, Discovery Child Development Center, which Social Services shut down in 2010 for a similar swaddling offense. She reopened the school as Universal Preschool the following year, with her sister as her partner.

Other violations discovered during Social Services' visit to Universal Preschool included an infant sleeping in a car seat and another in a high chair, and finding that there were more children at the center than the license allowed. When they arrived to serve the shutdown order, they also found a person caring for children who had not had a background check performed.

The state's complaint also accuses Lida Sharaf of asking a Social Services inspector to conceal evidence or not report the violations.

In addition to a temporary suspension order against the facility, Social Services issued bans against the Sharafs from working at any state-licensed child care facilities.

Both women were taken to Santa Rita Jail, where each is being held on $700,000 bail. Each felony count is punishable by either two, four or six years in jail, and each misdemeanor count is punishable by one year.

Staff writer Sandy Kleffmann contributed to this report. Contact Erin Ivie at eivie@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/erin_ivie.