Newborn Reflexes

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So much of the overwhelm of the early days of getting to know our newest family member comes in the form of a question that goes something like this: “Is it normal if/when/that my baby….?”

When we are born, we are mostly operating reflexively.  Humans have very little cognitive thought at birth, but loads and loads of reflexes on board to keep them alive.  

As parents, it is helpful to understand these reflexes so that we can identify what is happening as being normal baby behaviour, and so that we can support their natural development.  

Many of our first reflexes are automatic responses to various stimulation, or are designed to support survival.  Some of these first reflexes continue for months, while others should drop off in a matter of weeks. Sometimes care providers unintentionally stimulate a reflex that should be fade away, therefore altering the development path of that baby.

Some reflexes move from involuntary to voluntary behaviour.  For instance the Sucking reflex is present in utero. When born, if a nipple is placed in your baby’s mouth and touches the roof of their mouth, they will automatically begin sucking. Eventually they learn how to suck and do it on purpose.

So what are some of these reflexes? How long do they stick around and what is the point of them?

Here is a list of the most common reflexes that you will likely notice:

Moro Reflex – this drama filled reflex is also known as the startle reflex.  When baby’s head shifts position unexpectedly or suddenly, or falls backward, or if they are surprised by a large noise or movement, they will reflexively throw their arms, legs and neck out starfish style and then quickly bring the arms together.  Baby might cry as well, loudly. This can be so distressing, especially the first time it happens! Instinctively we may feel we have ‘broken’ our baby, or done them some deep harm. This reflex is protective and communicative in order to avoid harm.  It is different for every baby but tends to be most triggerable in the first month, and generally disappears after two months.

Walking/Stepping Reflex – this reflex has an amazing purpose, and is the one most mishandled by well intentioned care providers. When you support a baby to let the soles of its feet make contact with a solid surface, they will place one foot in front of the other as if walking, or will appear to bounce. It can also been seen in action when a baby is doing what is known as ‘the breast crawl. Grown up humans are thrilled to see how strong their baby is and looking as if they want to stand and walk so early.  However this reflex is meant to disappear after two months, and then resurface many months later, as a voluntary and learned behaviour known as walking. Keeping this reflex alive through stimulation can interfere with their long term development, so as hard as it is to resist, let them let it go! Why do they have this reflex? The newborn uses this reflex to help them get to the breast, by ‘stepping’ their way up their mother’s tummy. This in turn helps to knead the mother’s uterus which helps it to contract back down to it’s resting size.  The other way this reflex is used is during the birth process. When the baby has gotten its head out, there is typically a pause before the next uterine contraction. When the next contraction comes on, the top of the uterus squeezes down onto the sole of the baby’s feet, which in turn causes it to kick it’s legs into extension, hurtling it the rest of the way out of the womb. Fascinating!

Rooting Reflex – this primal reflex helps the baby to find the nipple so that it can feed. They will turn their head side to side towards and then away from the nipple in smaller and smaller movements until they locate the target.  If you stroke their cheek or mouth they will reflexively turn towards your hand. This reflex is in place for up to around 4 months of age by which time it has turned into a voluntary behaviour.

Tonic Neck Reflex – also known as the fencing posture. This subtle reflex may not be noticed by all parents.  If you have noticed that when your baby’s head turns to one side, their arm on that side straightens and the opposite arm bends (as if they were fencing), then you have seen the Tonic Neck reflex! It will typically disappear between 5 & 7 months of age.

Palmar & Plantar grasp – have you ever noticed how strong a baby’s grip is?  That’s a reflex! If you stroke a baby’s palm they will typically grip your finger with surprising strength. Or those little toes will curl up. It might feel like they are holding on, but then they will suddenly let go because it is an involuntary reflex at first.  It takes 5-6 months for the hand grasp reflex to fade into voluntary control, and 9-12 months for the toes to curl on command.

Now you know!  It is easy to get caught up in the worry of how our baby is developing, so keep in mind that everything you read about is based on ‘the average’.  There is a wide range of normal that falls above or below the average. Try to enjoy the developments of your newborn without analysis! These days flow by swiftly.

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