You know when you put your finger out to a newborn and they wrap their little fingers around it? While we all think this is adorable, it is actually a primitive reflex that all babies are born with.

A reflex is an automatic action that is the direct result of a stimulus. That’s right – grabbing your finger is an automatic, unconscious response. There are several other primitive reflexes every child is born with that help them grow, develop, and achieve their motor milestones. Kind of like when the doctor hits your knee and you automatically kick your foot out, these reflexes should occur without consciousness.

However, primitive reflexes become integrated (disappear) when they are no longer needed. Sometimes primitive reflexes do not integrate when they should, which can actually impact the child’s development. 

Here are some signs your child may have retained reflexes:

  • Impaired balance, appears clumsy
  • Poor handwriting and fine motor control
  • Language delays, timidity
  • Poor bilateral integration/coordination, difficulty crossing midline
  • Hyperactivity, attention issues
  • Poor Posture

So, you may be wondering what some of the specific primitive reflexes are that can be causing some of these impairments. Below is a brief description of a few reflexes, what they are responsible for, and what you might notice if they are still active. 

Palmar Grasp Reflex: Active from birth to 1 year, this is the one that causes an infant to grab your finger when placed in their hand! It assists babies in grasping and holding onto objects presented to them. If this reflex remains active, it can cause fatigue with handwriting and an excessive or inefficient grip on a pencil. (Integrated by 1 year.)
Moro Reflex: The Moro Reflex is triggered by an unexpected change in position or feeling of falling. Your child will then extend their arms out the side, bring them back into the body, and start to cry. Children who are timid, display increased anxiety, or decreased trust may have a retained Moro Reflex. They may also have impaired balance and increased sensitivity to vestibular movements. (Integrated by 3-4 months.)
Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex: When your infant’s head turns to one side, their arm and leg on that side will extend, while the other side flexes. This reflex helps with rolling and the beginning of hand-eye coordination. You may notice decreased coordination, decreased attention/focus, or difficulty throwing and catching when this reflex is active longer than it should be. (Integrated by 6 months)
Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex: This reflex causes arm and leg movements in response to the head flexing or extending. It is extremely important for developing gross motor skills, as it allows the arms and legs to move independently from each other. When it is not integrated, it can lead to poor balance, ADHD, or discomfort/difficulty sitting or standing still. (Integrated by 10 months.)
Babinski Reflex: The Babinski reflex is activated by a gentle stroke on the bottom of the foot, which results in the toes spreading. Decreased gross and fine motor coordination, poor balance, and decreased stability are all possible with a retained Babinski reflex. (Integrated by 1-2 years.)

These are just a few of the many primitive reflexes that all infants are born with. They are each imperative to an infant’s development, however they can interfere with further development if they remain retained beyond the typical active period. If any of the above descriptions sound like your child, a physical therapy evaluation is recommended.

The good news is the staff at Performance Pediatrics is trained in reflex integration techniques that can help get your child back on track with age-appropriate gross and fine motor milestones! 

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Article By: Kelly Gazzo, PT, DPT