How beautifully practical: Infants can breathe at the same time as being breastfed by connecting their nose with their windpipe and their mouth with their oesophagus. They lose this ability at three months.
Have you ever wondered why you can’t swallow and breathe at the same time? There are four openings in the pharynx part of your throat: two entrances – the nose and mouth – and two exits – the oesophagus and windpipe. Getting the entrance and exit right can be a matter of life or death. If it goes wrong, food gets stuck in our windpipe and we choke. In the worst-case scenario, this can be fatal.
When you swallow a piece of food, a complex sequence of movements happen as your body’s automatic reflex. The tongue moves like a wave, transporting the mouthful of food backwards.
The soft palate closes the opening to the nose. In the larynx, the vocal folds close and the epiglottis covers the windpipe. It is only then that the sphincter muscle opens the oesophagus to allow food in.
The reason this is so complicated is because we human beings can speak. In fact it only works because our larynx is situated lower down than that of other primates. The only exception is babies, whose larynx has an opening that is higher than the entrance to their stomach. This lets them connect their nose with their windpipe and their mouth with their oesophagus at the same time. The infant breathes whilst being breastfed. At three months, the larynx lowers. Although the baby can no longer breathe and swallow at the same time, they can snore and learn to talk.