We rightly think of newborns as helpless creatures dependent upon the care they receive from the adults in their lives. However, in the past five days I was reminded by two newborns (a six week-old and a three month- old) and two medical doctors (my uncle and my cousin) of the remarkable set of reflexes given to infants that help them adapt to life outside the womb and survive in it.
Here are just a few of the beneficial reflexes newborn are born with:
- While the developing infant has lungs, she does not need them until birth. The breathing reflex “even before the umbilical cord is cut” allows her to make this transition to a world with air. The ability to sneeze, hiccough, cough and thrash are also vital to breathing in newborns.
- A newborn has no experience with eating through its mouth. Yet when a baby’s cheek is stimulated, he turns in that direction, opens his mouth and begins to suck anything that touches his lips. An additional aid to the newborn is that right after birth, his mother’s breast smells like amniotic fluid, the familiar environment that the baby has known. In my cousin’s words, “It smells like home!”
- The proximity of our windpipe and esophagus makes choking a dangerous possibility even for adults. The gag reflex begins in newborns and, thankfully, never leaves us.
- Newborns can lose heat rapidly, so parents are given instruction about swaddling them and guarding their temperature at all times. However, tucking legs close to the body, shivering and crying are reflexes that enable a baby to conserve heat.
I remember being impressed watching the news in 1985 after the devastating earthquake in Mexico City. Up to a week after the tremor, the survivors that were found were newborns. How is this even possible? According to a New York Times article at the time, pediatric specialists “generally attribute it to the fact that newborn babies have an excess of body fluids and are metabolically prepared for stressful events at the time of birth. In addition, because the nature of their entombment was somewhat similar to being in the womb, doctors have speculated that the infants probably experienced less of the terror and shock that can so quickly drain away the life of an adult in a similar situation.”
We all began our lives so vulnerably, but how amazing that we were designed to rise to the challenges before us. It is no cliché that the birth of a child is laden with miracles.
 http://www.reocities.com/route66ok2000/devpsych5/devpsych5.html; chapter summary of pages 130-136, point 8.