Can Babies Breathe Under Water?

baby under water2The other day I heard someone say, that babies can breathe underwater when they are born. Of course, that didn’t really make any sense to me was first thought. But as I thought about it for a bit longer, I actually asked myself what happens when a baby is born in water? When do, or rather, should they get their first oxygen from the air? I had no idea. And all of a sudden, I thought a bit different about the question ‘can babies breathe under water?‘.

I did my research and here is what I found out:

No, a baby cannot breathe underwater. As long as the umbilical cord stays intact and the placenta is not delivered, it can still get oxygen-rich blood. Just like it did in the mother’s womb. When the umbilical cord is cut or the baby is exposed to air, it will automatically start to breathe.

But the whole breathing process that babies go through when they are born is fascinating. And I found out some very interesting things that I want to share with you.

Why We Need To Breath

To get a better understanding of this whole topic and why people ask themselves ‘can babies breathe under water?’, lets first have a quick look why we need to breathe in general.

Of course, this is a huge topic itself and could fill books, but I just want to break it down as compressed as possible:

When we breathe in, our lungs filter oxygen from the air (thanks plants!) and make it usable for our body. Since every cell in our body needs a constant supply of oxygen to produce energy that keeps our body alive, this process is vital and indispensable.

Without this process of getting oxygen into our system, cells could not burn sugar and fatty acids and therefore, could not produce energy. No energy, no life. Simply put.

So you probably knew before how essential it is for our body to breathe. An adult average human can survive about 3 weeks without food and 3 days without water. But only about 3 minutes without breathing, and permanent brain damage could already be the result. After 5 to 6 minutes without oxygen, death would occur.

It is fascinating, that this whole oxygen supply works in a different way before a baby is born and takes his first breath. Until then, it all works because of the connection to the mother’s body via the placenta and the umbilical cord.

Functions Of The Umbilical Cord And The Placenta

Before the lungs of a baby get filled with fresh air for the first time, it will receive its oxygen directly from the mother. The placenta and the umbilical cord play the key role here.

At any point, one-third of the baby’s blood is in the placenta and is processed.
But also all other nutritions and life support in general, of course, are just possible because of the umbilical cord connection to the mother.

The waste products and carbon dioxide are sent back to the mother’s circulation to be eliminated. You can say, the umbilical cord is a highway to bring in the good stuff from the mom and send back the waste products to her.

The placenta nourishes and maintains the fetus via this ‘highway’ that is the umbilical cord, and also it removes those products that the fetus sends back to the mother.

Just another example of the fascinating wonder of life and also the interaction and close connection between a mother and her baby.

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Don’t Cut To Early!

In the last few years, there was a new discovery that some parts of the media picked up. But you might haven’t heard about it yet.

During pregnancy, the mother’s body sends about 500 ml of blood per minute to her uterus, where it becomes accessible for the baby via the placenta and the umbilical cord.

Doctors often cut the umbilical cord immediately (about 15 to 20 seconds after the delivery).

BUT after those new findings that I mentioned above, it is now recommended for obstetricians to wait at least 30 to 60 seconds to cut.

Experts know now, that right after birth, the placenta gives the baby a boost of oxygen-rich blood throiugh the umbilical cord. This can have a variety of health benefits for the baby.
If cut too soon, the baby misses out on this oxygen-rich blood in the first moments after birth and therefore, also on the mentioned health benefits.

Those benefits are for example a lower risk of transfusions, anemia and bleeding in the brain, mild iron deficiency (read here) and it can even lead to slightly better early brain development.

Read about the benefits of waiting a bit before the umbilical cord connection is cut here.

How Does A Baby Breathe During A Water Birth?

Water deliveries are a popular alternative to the standard way of giving birth. There can be quite a few beniefits of a water birth.
Amongst other things, it can be a non-medical pain relief and it means a more gentle transition for the baby.

Mothers who made the experience say it is a – according to the circumstances – relaxing experience in comparison, and that it feels like a safe and more private environment.

It is really worth considering this way of labor. If you are looking for more information, check out this website.

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But here is the thing.
A baby is not triggered to take it’s first breath just because it exits the mother’s womb. The actual triggers that cause this natural reflex in a baby are the change in temperature and environment.

That’s why the obstetrician will always make sure, that the water the baby gets born in, is always about 35-37 degrees Celsius. Just like the mother’s body.
The newborn will not try to breathe with its lungs until it is exposed to air.

It can also be excluded, that the baby might accidentally inhale water. This can not happen, because every baby has a natural so-called ‘dive reflex‘, which prevents the baby to inhale when its head is under water.

The same reflex comes into play during breastfeeding and it makes sure, that the baby doesn’t inhale any milk. This natural reflex lasts for about six months after birth.

Swedish researcher studied the dive reflex in 21 infants and found, that none of them inhaled water when they were pulled under water.

So you don’t need to worry about your baby and its breathing if you decide on a water birth.

Closing Words

Hopefully, you found all the answers to your questions. and especially to ‘can babies breathe under water?‘.

Remember, if the umbilical cord is cut or the baby is exposed to air (due to a change in environment and temperature), it will automatically use its lungs to breathe. This is because of a natural reflex.

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Have a great day and spread the word! 😉

See you in the next article!