About Primitive Reflexes

Primitive Reflexes are the automatic movement patterns babies are born with to respond to specific sensory stimulation. These reflexes are developed in utero and are controlled by the lowest level of the brain: the spinal cord and the brain stem.

The reflexes serve three functions:

1. They help us make our way through the birth canal, helping mum as well as we can.

2. They help us survive those first few months before we learn to do things for ourselves; for example the baby knows how to breathe and feed from birth.

3. They help us practice movement patterns which we will need to use later in life.

Within the first year of life the reflexes should be integrated into the function of the higher centres in the brain, allowing the baby to learn to control their movements in gravity voluntarily rather than by reflex.

If the reflexes do not integrate properly, there may be a higher risk that the child has difficulties with development, learning, behaviour, emotional health, coordination, concentration, attention, as well as challenges with writing, posture and visual or auditory perception.

Owing to their importance in a child’s proper brain function and development, Primitive Reflex integration is a primary focus in the Switched-on Kids program.

Below is a description of some of the reflexes and the possible challenges a child can suffer if they don’t integrate well.

This is the very early withdrawal reflex for the foetus, in which it will move away from perceived danger such as a blow to the protective space of mummy’s tummy. You can see this reflex in action when an ultrasound is performed and the baby moves. This reflex is supposed to be integrated before the baby is born.

If it does not integrate well, the baby may be very unsettled, not sleep well, not feed well or appear to suffer abdominal pains (colic) or reflux.

The persistence of this reflex may cause the older child to avoid sensory stimulation, be afraid, not like change or behave in shy and timid ways. Conversely the child may also be over-reactive in his/her avoidance and could be aggressive, screaming, yelling and fighting.

When a baby is surprised or scared, for example by a sudden movement or a loud noise, she will startle: extend neck and arms and breathe in, followed by flexing of spine and limbs and a loud cry. This reflex will help the baby take her first breath when she is first born and is a way to communicate the need for assistance and help from mum. This is a fight-flight reflex, a stress response, during which stress hormones are released into the blood stream. This will cause the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure to increase, just as when an adult is stressed. This reflex should integrate within the first few months of life and become the less severe reaction we as adults know as startle.
If the MORO doesn’t integrate properly the child may be over-reactive and aggressive, easily distracted, have poor attention and could even be labelled ADHD. This child may be prone to illness, be allergic and/or hypersensitive to foods and airborne allergens due to frequent exposure to stress hormones.

When the baby turns their head to the side, the arm and leg will straighten on the same side. This reflex is thought to assist in the birth process, and helps the baby see his hand, so he can develop hand/eye coordination and depth perception.
If the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex does not integrate properly the child could be uncoordinated and unbalanced with crawling (if any) and walking, may have difficulty using both sides of the body at the same time as well as having problems bringing arms to midline (catching balls). Pencil grip, writing and reading could be a challenge. They may turn the books at weird angles to make reading and writing easier.

In a baby, when you place your finger in his palm, the fingers will close and hold on. This reflex goes back in evolution to when babies clung on to their mother for safety.
If the reflex does not integrate properly the child could have problems with hand and finger control, poor pencil grip, hand writing and hypersensitivity of the hand. Due to this reflex’s association with the Rooting and Sucking Reflex, this child may often also dribble profusely and suffer delayed speech and articulation. You can often see the child’s mouth and tongue move when they are writing and drawing.

When a baby’s cheek and lips are stroked they will reflexively turn their head, open their mouth with the tongue extended, search for the nipple and start sucking and swallowing.
If this reflex does not integrate well, the child may be hypersensitive on the skin around the mouth, and/or have the tongue too far forward in the mouth, which may interfere with chewing and swallowing solid foods, as well as possibly causing speech and articulation difficulties. They could dribble profusely, suck their thumb, and, due to the association with the Palmar Reflex, have difficulties with manual dexterity and hypersensitivity of the hands.

Spinal Galant In a baby, when you stroke the muscles next to the lower spine on one side, you will see a slight contraction of those muscles. This reflex is to help the baby ‘wriggle’ out of the birth canal. Stimulation on both sides of the spine is related to a bladder emptying reflex.
If this reflex does not integrate properly, the child can have trouble sitting still, have ‘ants in the pants’, coordination problems, have trouble with bedwetting and possibly scoliosis (curvature of the spine).

This reflex is about where the head and body are in space and the interaction of the senses. It causes the limbs to bend when the neck is flexed, and to straighten when the neck is extended.
If the reflex doesn’t integrate properly the child can suffer disturbance in the vestibular system and its interaction with the other senses. The child may be delayed in reaching their gross motor milestones, as in delayed learning to crawl and walk, and may appear unbalanced, uncoordinated and clumsy. The child can suffer vision and hearing problems and may suffer motion sickness. If flexion does not integrate, the child may be weak and floppy and will often stand and sit with stooped posture, whereas retained extension could result in a child who appears stiff, with rigid and jerky movements. You may see this child walking on their toes.

Symetrical tonic reflexThis reflex helps the child to discover how to move by themselves by getting them rocking when on hands and knees. On all fours, when the neck is flexed, the arms will flex, the hips extend and the eyes focus close. This causes the child to rock forward. When the neck extends, the arms will extend and the hips will flex, causing the child to rock back and train the eyes on the far distance.
If this reflex does not integrate properly, the child may not learn to cross-crawl properly, a skill which is essential for thorough integration between the left and right sides of the brain, as well as training the eyes to focus and track. The child may have poor posture (neck flexion causes arms and upper body to flex, and the belly to push forward in standing position). They may also sit with the legs and hips forming a W. Another possible issue with this retained reflex is difficulty changing eye focus from book to board, poor hand-eye coordination and messy eating habits.

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