Primitive Reflexes - The First Year
Updated: Apr 22
Have you ever noticed how babies are born being able to naturally do certain things such as letting us know when they are hungry, or gripping your finger when placed in their palm?
That's because babies are born with a select set of reflexes, called primitive reflexes. Primitive reflexes are motor responses that come from the brain stem and develop in utero. These are essential responses to stimuli in the first few months to one year of life. The grasping reflex described above is one of the motions that babies produce involuntary: Your baby’s central nervous system automatically orders your baby’s muscles to react.
Why are Primitive Reflexes important?
These reflexes are an important part of the developmental process, preparing a baby for specific functions such as learning to crawl, walk, talk and so on. A baby's brain is constantly growing and developing. These reflexes ensure that the correct stimulus is being sent to the brain, in order for the central nervous system (CNS) to determine what to do next. Development of these reflexes is to occur in a particular, and specific order. By the time your baby reaches 4 to 6 months of age, their brain should have matured and replaced these involuntary movements with voluntary ones. Once they are integrated around 12 months of age, this allows for more advanced postural reflexes to occur, which give further information to higher centers of the brain and body for further development.
What happens if Primitive Reflexes do not fully integrate, or form in an unwanted order?
This means that the child’s neurological age and physical age may have a gap between them. Yes, the child may have been developing appropriately in terms of physical growth, but unfortunately their brain and central nervous system may not have established optimal motor, behavioral, and speech pathways because of these retained reflexes. In other words, the brain did not get a chance to fully and properly adjust to the stimuli that was being relayed, and therefore was not able to develop further pathways for new developmental skills. Researchers have suggested that when primitive reflexes aren’t integrated, children may face not only motor challenges, but also cognitive challenges related to disorders like ADHD, sensory processing disorder, autism, and learning disabilities.
What are the causes of Retained Primitive Reflexes?
Retention of primitive reflexes can be caused by a variety of factors. The birth process is a key factor in the integration of these reflexes. Therefore a traumatic birth experience or birth by c-section may lead to retained reflexes. Additional causes can include: falls, traumas, lack of tummy time, delayed or skipped creeping or crawling, chronic ear infections, head trauma, and vertebral subluxations.
How can I help my child if I notice retained symptoms?
The good news is, we know that connections, or information pathways, in the brain can change and develop in a way that may lead to improvements in these symptoms. Participating in a program that focuses on improving the foundation of development and brain connectivity, rather than masking symptoms or coping with them for life, will be most beneficial. You can find personalized plans to integrate a child's retained primitive reflexes along with many other key exercises for improvement. When Retained Primitive Reflexes are assessed, then worked on to integrate, symptoms associated with them may go away all together!
What are the 5 main Primitive Reflexes?
Babinkski Reflex: This reflex is a response to a stimulus at the bottom of the foot. This helps to develop specific motor pathways to allow the baby to crawl and walk. This is also a very important reflex to determine optimal functioning of the central nervous system. For example, sensory, vestibular, proprioception and visual system information. The Babinkski reflex is present at birth, and integrates no later than two years of age. If your child is showing signs of poor balance, lack of coordination, sensory sensitivities and even issues within the classroom, it is important to have this reflex examined.
Rooting Reflex: This reflex is performed by lightly stroking the side of the baby's cheek, which will cause the baby to turn towards the side of stimulus and open their mouth. This reflex is immediately at birth in order for the baby to begin to feed, and should be diminished by 3-4 months old. This reflex is connected to the sensory system, specifically tactile and proprioception. Therefore, kids with sensory concerns may have a retained rooting reflex. A retained rooting reflex in younger children and toddlers can also lead to difficulty swallowing solids, poor dexterity and poor articulation.
Palmar Grasp: This reflex develops in utero, and is performed when you place a finger in the baby's palm and the baby grips it. This reflex should be diminished by 3-4 months old. The palmar grasp is also connected to the sensory system, affecting proprioception and tactile.
Spinal Galant Reflex: This reflex is present at birth, and even assists with baby descending through the birth canal during delivery. This reflex integrates around 3-9 months, and is also related to proprioception and tactile development. A retained spinal galant reflex can cause postural and gait abnormalities. This reflex also assists with development of bladder control and can affect children with bedwetting issues.
ATNR: Also known as Asymmetrical tonic neck reflex is performed by rotating the neck in a specific direction, and looking for the body’s response. This reflex is present at birth and involved in many developmental processes such as visual, auditory, vestibular and proprioceptive. This reflex should diminish around 4-6 months. This is a very important reflex that prepares babies for more challenging movements such as cross-crawl patterns and brain/body connection when crossing the midline. The brain and body need to “speak” to each other in a specific way. If something is impeding this connection, they will find alternate routes, however this may allow developmental milestones to be delayed. Retention of this reflex can lead to poor dexterity while handwriting, difficulties with activities that require us to cross midline, delayed crawling and poor hand-eye coordination.
When do these reflexes form and integrate?
The birth process is a crucial time for these reflexes to develop and integrate. If trauma has occurred during the birth process, this could inhibit the response of primitive reflexes, which could eventually affect a baby’s neurological development.
How can chiropractic care assist with the integration of Primitive Reflexes?
During a chiropractic exam, we test each of these age appropriate reflexes, to ensure proper integration. If we find that a specific reflex is not integrated appropriately, or retained, we adjust our care plan appropriately in order to encourage integration of these reflexes, and get that brain/ connection as strong as possible for further development! We work to determine that babies and children are hitting developmental milestones appropriately, and get those little bodies performing at their best!
What are some activities that can help my child with their Primitive Reflexes?
Climbing activities such as rock walls, climbing gyms: This will not only help to strengthen your child’s muscles, but it also requires coordination of the arms and legs, as well as the left and right sides of the body.
Ball games such as rolling, throwing, bouncing, etc: If your child struggles with ball games, use a larger ball and try rolling the ball instead of throwing. Ball games are great for improving visual tracking, hand-eye coordination, and bilateral integration.
Crawling activities such as crawling through tunnels, over obstacles, animal walks: Because retained Primitive Reflexes can have such a profound effect on crawling, incorporating more crawling into your child’s day can be very beneficial (even if your child is older).
Cat-Cow exercise: If you’re familiar with yoga, you may already know this exercise. This exercise is specifically for the STNR. On all 4s, slowly bend your neck to look down at your knees while simultaneously arching your back up. Then, slowly bend your neck to look up at the ceiling while simultaneously arching your back down. Complete slowly and with good control. If your child has retained Primitive Reflexes, you may notice extra movements throughout the arms, legs, and trunk.
Obstacle courses: If you’re familiar with OT, you may already be familiar with obstacle courses. These are great opportunities to provide movement, incorporate bilateral integration activities, crawling and climbing, etc. Setting up an obstacle course is easier than it sounds - keep it simple!
Let us know if you try any of the above exercises, and how they worked for you!
We are all born with primitive reflexes and they should, ideally, naturally integrate in order to promote higher level learning and motor development. Sometimes, they don’t. And this can potentially cause problems for children. If you suspect that your child may have retained primitive reflexes, use the ideas provided here. Additionally, talk with your pediatrician and seek out a Chiropractor who is trained in primitive reflex integration. Advocate for your child’s development! It may not be easy, but it will be worth it!
By: Brooke Morphet
Chiropractor at ANH Wellness