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The Hidden Abilities Of Babies

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — There’s something about babies. They are part miracle, part mystery. They are so full of innocence, and so full of promise, yet it turns out these simple, seemingly undeveloped infants are actually wired to do so much more than most of us realize.

So to explore the depths of what we understand about kids, we went to a pool. We’d heard that babies just instinctively hold their breath underwater. We had seen the Nirvana album and YouTube videos, but wondered if it was just too good to be true.

“There’s still a little fear when it’s your own,” said Swim Instructor Michelle Lasserud, who put her fears aside and did an experiment with her 12-week-old son, Harley. “When he goes under water, I do know he’ll be okay. But when he cries, every mother is nervous when their baby cries.”

Lasserud teaches classes at Foss Swim School, and teaches children as young as 6 months, but she’s still as interested to see the results as we are.

“I think we’ll get the arms in the air, and the mouth going back,” she predicted.  “We might get a couple tears after that.”

John Foss has been working with young swimmers for decades. He is Lasserud’s boss, and he led the way.

“It’s a natural thing,” said John. “Once the face hits the water, it kind of closes up.”

As we’d been told, Harley loved it. There was no coughing, choking or gurgling, just a serene baby looking like he was born to do it. In a way, he was.

Foss stresses that this should only be done with a professional. He limits babies to six passes under water, not because of their breathing but because of how much water they might drink. Every time he sees it, he’s as amazed as the rest of us.

“There’s something really remarkable about the human condition that was something to do with water,” he said.

So what’s at work here?  WCCO-TV went to the University of Minnesota to find out.

“Holding breath when you’re under water is certainly a very adaptive thing,” said Dr. Al Yonas. “I don’t think the baby is helpless, because the baby is very effective at doing what that baby needs to do to survive.”

Dr. Yonas said our understanding of babies has changed dramatically in the last 60 years. We now know that babies are born with a bundle of instincts and reflexes, many built around survival.

Babies won’t crawl over a ledge, because they’d get hurt. Babies distinguish the faces, sounds, and smells of their mothers, to help them find food. And as we learned, they won’t breathe in when they’re under water.

“I think the very young infant has many, many adaptive behaviors ready to go that respond to the way the world is and what the demands are,” he said.

Because babies like 5-month-old Evelyn can’t give direct feedback, researchers at the University’s Institute of Child Development must devise creative ways to figure out what she can see and feel. Enter the Einstein mask. Adults can tell which one is concave, and which one is convex. But can Evelyn?

With a patch over one eye, she sees two dimensions and reaches for what she thinks is sticking out: The middle of the face. Without the patch, she doesn’t, showing that even infants have depth perception, which is also crucial for their survival.

“If we didn’t have depth perception we would run into things,” said graduate student  Sherryse Corrow. “We would go to reach out for things and we would miss it.”

Almost as interesting, some of these early abilities fade away. For example, we are born with the ability to recognize all of the language sounds of the world. But with time, we stop recognizing the sounds that aren’t part of the language we use.

“Think about how hard it would be for us to go to Budapest and learn Hungarian,” said Dr. Yonas. “But for a 1-year-old, that’s the easiest thing to do.”

It’s called perceptual narrowing. We are wired to ignore differences that don’t matter, like those sounds, or whether printed letters have serifs or not, so we can focus on what does.

And one more thing about babies and survival: “Their noses are shorter, their faces are chubby and cute and adorable, so they’re born to be taken care of,” said Dr. Yonas.

And if their cute faces weren’t enough, at around eight weeks babies develop something called the social smile.  It’s the thing that melts a mother’s heart, and brings us back to the pool, Michelle and her beloved baby Harley.

“The mother instinct is in a category all of its own,” she said while hugging him tightly.

It’s interesting to note that babies stop holding their breath on their own sometime between six months and two years. Over time, fear of water can creep in. To avoid that, Foss recommends showers for babies to make sure they’re used to getting water on their faces, and not scared of the water when you do teach them how to swim.

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