Friday, September 07, 2018

What freediving taught me about neonatal resuscitation

This semester I am teaching a class with the theme "Exploring the Limits of the Human Body." We are currently reading Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor. This book is a fascinating narrative that combines ocean exploration, marine biology, competitive and research freediving, and dormant human abilities that originate in our deep oceanic past (the mammalian dive reflex, magnetoreception, and echolocation).

When freedivers experience a blackout--usually near the surface at the end of their dive--they still remain responsive to sound. After pulling the unconscious freediver to the surface, the safety team will call the diver by name and tell them to breathe: "Breathe, Alexy, breathe! Breathe, Alexy, breathe!"


From my time in the home birth world, I often heard midwives talking about how they involve parents in neonatal resuscitation. A common practice is to have one of the parents speak to the baby and encourage them to breathe.

I had always categorized this practice as a nice idea. It certainly wouldn't hurt, right? In fact, I did it instinctively when Inga was born; she lost color and tone after about 30 seconds and needed mouth-to-mouth. While I was resuscitating her, I was talking to her and encouraging her to breathe.

However, I never thought that there was a scientific or physiologic reason for calling the baby by name and telling them to breathe--until I learned about freediving. Even when all of their other senses are offline, a blacked-out freediver will still respond to sound.


Calling a baby by name and telling them to breathe, especially when done by a familiar voice, isn't just fluffy woo-woo. It's part of our basic physiology.

This was a lesson in giving more respect to the instinctual or "homespun" practices that have evolved with midwifery and home birth. How many other traditions have yet-to-be-discovered science behind them?


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