Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Tough Toddlers: The Surprisingly Resilient Science of Children

We tend to regard babies as incredibly fragile versions of the real people they will eventually become. Each year parents spend billions of dollars padding the corners of their furniture and adding latches to cupboard doors that could thwart even the most devoted of safe-crackers. You can’t really blame them. It is part of human nature to protect our offspring. If humans didn’t have the instinctual urge to do everything in our power to protect kids, the species would be in real trouble. There is however a little talked about understanding in the scientific community that the very young are not as breakable as we sometimes think.

A quick survey of online news archives serves to highlight the exceptional durability of babies and toddlers. In September 2013 a 17 month old boy in Toronto, Canada survived a seven story fall from his family’s balcony. Only a month earlier, a one-year-old girl in Switzerland survived a fall from a cable car that killed both her parents. Then there is the story of Saskatchewan’s Karlee Kosolofski, who is in a league of her own.

On February 23, 1994 Karlee, then 2 years old, stumbled out of bed and wandered outside of her parents home in Rouleau, SK. It was approximately 3 AM and the temperature was -22 C (-7.6 F). Karlee was too small to reach the door handle that would allow her back in the house. Five hours later her mother found her virtually frozen solid. Attempts to revive her through CPR failed and she was rushed to the hospital, but her parents were sure it was too late. Karlee is now 19 years old and despite having had part of her left leg amputated due to extreme frostbite, she lives the life of a normal teenager. Doctors were able to thaw out her tissue and raise her body temperature from a world record low of 14.2 C (57.6 F) back up to a normal temperature of 37 C (98.6 F).

So what is going on here? How are these kids surviving such extreme physical events? The answer lies in the same force that produces the parental urge to protect them: evolution. Try as we might to keep kids out of harm’s way, they have a knack for finding it anyway. As a result, over millions of years, the bodies of children have developed certain defense mechanisms. Their bones are more flexible and greater in number, allowing them to absorb impact better. Relative to their size, they have great fat reserves giving them a bit of extra cushion and a build in source of emergency nourishment. Even a child’s mind is better equipped than most adults’ to cope with stressful situations.

In his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, Laurence Gonzales describes a phenomenon in wilderness survival where children between the ages of 2 and 6 have one of the highest survival rates of any age group. This is because very young children don’t impose their expectations on the world. Instead they see situations for how they really are and accept them as fact. When they are tired, they sleep. When they are hungry, they eat. They don’t wander around to the point of exhaustion in search of the salvation that “must be around here someplace”.

So it appears that adults aren’t the only force looking out for kids, mother nature is also on their side. That is not to say that we don’t need car safety seats and childproof caps on medicine bottles. We grown ups have created a world that is full of more hazards than evolution can reasonably cope with. All I am saying is that parents shouldn’t feel like they are alone in the fight to keep their children safe. Of all the allies a person could have, biology is pretty good one.

*Disclaimer: Obviously, please do not try to subject children to this.


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