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Baby Reflexes

July 26, 2020

Unlike other animals, human babies are actually pretty incapable when they are first born. There are different theories for this but one is that as humans evolved from walking on four legs to two the birth canal became narrower which required babies to be born after a shorter gestational period. This meant that more development of the body and brain was required after birth than many other animals. Consequently we acquired a number of reflexes to help our babies to survive the early weeks and months after they are born.

Reflexes are involuntary automatic responses to stimulation and our babies have around 70. Initially these are primitive reflexes but over time these are released and postural reflexes emerge. This happens as your baby starts to gain control over some movements and through repetition they build the neural pathways that enable them to develop more advanced movement skills. 

Child and baby reflexes

How can I support the release of primitive reflexes and progression to postural reflexes?

Movements such as sitting and crawling require strength and balance but they also require a baby to have released their primitive reflexes and for postural reflexes to have emerged. This happens when your baby is moved around and given as much opportunity as possible to wriggle, roll, bounce and dance. Children who get lots of time on the floor, on backs and tummies naturally build the strength and balance to sit and crawl when the reflexes are ready. When primitive reflexes do not release in the normal time frame this can cause other developmental complications - physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally. The reason behind this delay can be hard to pinpoint but containerisation could be a contributing factor which is another reason why children need to be given as much opportunity to move as possible.

Child and baby reflexes

Examples of primitive reflexes

Primitive reflexes are meant to be temporary. Once they have served their purpose the acquisition of early movement releases them so they become dormant. As this happens postural reflexes begin to emerge. Release generally happens in an orderly pattern but differs for every child.

Examples of primitive reflexes include:

  • Moro or startle reflex - this is designed to stimulate the first breath after your baby is born.  It is when your baby is startled by something and throws their arms and legs out to the side and spreads their fingers. Your baby needs to be in a low stress environment which simulates the womb to release this reflex. It is linked to their vestibular or balance system and so rocking also helps. 
  • Palmar or grasp reflex - This is related to three movements: the tight grip of something, the curling of the toes and the use of the hands when your baby is feeding at the breast. It assists with your baby’s first tactile interaction with the world and when not fully released may result in a child sucking their thumb or fiddling with fingers (eg stroking a toy) to provide comfort.  It will evolve into the pincer reflex which enables more deliberate manipulation of tools and apparatus.
  • Food finder reflex - If you stroke a newborn’s cheek they will turn their head towards the sensation to find the source of the food. This reflex is generally released about six months and when it does baby is ready to start eating solid foods.
  • Push away reflex (Plantar reflex and babinski response) - When you hold your baby upright on your lap their legs reflexively push away from you. This is the plantar reflex (sometimes mistaken for an early attempt at standing). The task of this reflex is to help baby to push against the wall of the uterus during birth to aid delivery and to help to help them to move closer to the breast for feeding. It is accompanied by the babinski response where the big toe stands up and the others fan out. 
  • Squirming or spinal galant reflex - As a baby’s back rubs against the uterus and vagina wall during birth, the squirming reflex helps them to wriggle through the birth canal. It appears to have little use after birth. Baby massage, gentle rolling, stretching and baby’s natural wriggling will work to release this reflex, generally between 3 and 9 months. If a child is particularly squirmy or fidgety they may need some help to release this reflex, through back rubbing or rolling activities.
  • Aligning or tonic labyrinthine reflex - As the baby is curled up for months in the uterus, this reflex helps to stretch the body out for proper posture and movement. You see it in two positions: the curled up foetal position and the over extended back arch. This reflex is released over three years and is released for babies by massage and holding them in different positions. Children who do not fully release these may have problems with balance, muscle tone or clumsiness later on.
  • Fencing or asymmetrical tonic neck reflex - this position helps your baby to squeeze their shoulders through the birth canal. After birth the reflex shows itself as turning their head to the side which is designed to prevent accidental obstruction of the airways when lying on the tummy. The fencing reflex is the connection between the arms and head so they move automatically as a single unit. When the baby looks to the side the corresponding arm stretches out, the eyes looks to the hand and the other arm folds in. You can help to release it by stretching the arms out to the side and with crossovers (touching right hand to left foot). Releasing this reflex is important for motor development which happens when a baby gets up on all fours and starts to rock.
  • Rocking or symmetrical tonic neck reflex - This is a turning point in infant development and acts as a stepping stone to the final postural reflex stage. This is when the brain and body are learning a whole new pattern of coordinated movement - arms and legs moving in opposition as well as one side of the body moving independently from the other. 
Child and baby reflexes

Examples of postural reflexes

Sitting, standing, walking and running and all other sophisticated movements children need to master rely on straight and steady upright posture. The postural reflexes help to achieve this. If you think of the brain like volume controls, the brain turns up the volume of the postural reflexes as it starts to fade out the primitive reflexes.

Prominent postural reflexes include:

  • Straightening or landau reflex - this helps your baby to achieve and maintain a straight posture by centering the head, neck and shoulders. It appears shortly after birth (between 3 - 10 weeks) and works to build overall muscle tone. It works with the other reflexes in order for babies to move from a prone to upright position.
  • Head-righting reflex - Within weeks of being born babies can lift their head a bit when on their tummies or being held and culminates with your baby being able to lift their head towards their chest at about 5 - 6 months. When nature switches on this reflex the muscles of the upper body are prompted to try to lift and hold the head at the top of the baby’s body. The head is the heaviest part of the body and without control of it we topple over. 
  • Crawling or swimming or amphibian reflex - This is like a dress rehearsal for crawling and stimulates movement of the opposite arm and legs. You can see signs of it when you lift one arm and the opposite knee bends.
  • Falling or parachute reflex - It is pretty certain that babies will do a lot of stumbling and falling whilst working to get up on two feet. This reflex emerges as your baby begins to crawl and sit up by themselves to protect their bodies, especially their heads. As balance isn’t yet refined they will tilt from time to time and when they do their arms go out to the side like a parachute to break their fall. Although well intentioned, propping baby up with containers and cushions etc can interfere with this reflex.
Child and baby reflexes

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