As an adult we all know the reflex reaction of the doctor hitting our knee with a hammer or of the “gasp” reflex ─ the sharp intake of breath when a warm shower suddenly turns cold. It’s an automatic response that you cannot control.
Infants have reflexes too. These are automatic, are in-built, and are designed to ensure they survive the important first months of life and they have about 70 (yes 70!!)
Here is a guide to some of the more obvious reflexes that you may have already spotted.
Rooting Reflex and Sucking Reflex
The Rooting reflex causes the baby to turn his head and therefore his mouth towards the nipple to feed. This is why midwives tell new mums to brush the nipple at the side of the baby’s mouth – the automatic rooting reflex ensures that the baby will turn their head towards the nipple. The sucking reflex makes the lips purse and therefore creates a seal around the nipple. These two reflexes work together to ensure that your newborn baby feeds (and therefore survives!)
As your baby becomes stronger these reflexes become overwritten with more mature adult responses so that they can move their heads independently and decide for themselves when they want to root and suck.
The Palmar Grasp Reflex
The Palmar or Grasp reflex is first apparent 11 weeks after conception and is fully present at the birth of your baby. It develops from an involuntary grasp to a voluntary release and pincer grasp by the time they are around 32 weeks old. It is essential for developing fine motor skills and enhancing the ability to recognise an object only by feel and for sensory input. The Palmar reflex may possibly be an evolutionary hangover which allowed our very distant ancestors to cling to their parent’s fur. This is the reflex that allows babies to hang on a clothes line (allegedly! Do not try this at home!!). Your baby’s grip is strong but unpredictable; though they may be able to support their own weight, they may also release their grip suddenly and without warning – so it remains a theoretical argument and not something to be tested!!
As motor control improves through proper neural development, the Palmar reflex matures into the pincer grip. You can help this process by doing lots of activities that involve playing with your baby’s fingers (massage, singing and doing the actions for This Little Piggy Went to Market, stroking the back of their hand etc.)
The Moro Reflex
If your new baby is startled by a loud noise, a sudden movement, or feels like they’re falling, they might respond in a particular way. They might suddenly extend their arms and legs, arch their back, and then curl everything in again. Your baby may or may not cry when they do this.
This is an involuntary startle response called the Moro reflex. Your baby does this reflexively in response to being startled. It’s something that newborn babies do to let you know that they may be in danger and that you should rescue them. This reflex should be replaced by an adult startle response within a couple of months and you will notice this transition when you do fun movement games with your baby. When the Moro reflex is still present your baby my squeeze up their face and arms may shoot out to the side, as the months pass this look of ‘terror’ this will be replaced with smiles and squeals of delight.
The ATNR Reflex
The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) emerges in-utero at around 18 weeks after conception and normally remains until around 6 months after birth (though it can be seen for longer when babies are asleep). The reflex is initiated when the head is turned to the left or the right whilst the baby lies on its back. You may have noticed that when your baby turns their head it causes the arm and the leg on one side to extend, whilst the limbs on the opposite side flex (curl) – this is the ATNR reflex. It is often called the “fencing” reflex because if your baby’s head turns to the right, their right arm and leg will automatically extend whilst their left arm and leg both flex and they will look like they are holding the classic fencing position.
The purpose of the ATNR is to provide stimulation for developing muscle tone and the vestibular system and helps with hand-eye co-ordination. Interestingly it also assists with the birthing process by inhibiting limb movement and slowing it down so that the baby uses a “corkscrew” movement through the birth passage.
Spend some time playing and moving your baby and see if you can spot one of these reflexes.