Primitive Reflexes

October 23, 2017

What are primitive reflexes?

In the simplest of terms, primitive reflexes are the pre-programmed (meaning present at birth) set of motor patterns that enable infants to survive (suck-swallow-breathe), and begin to interact (move) with the world around them. These pre-programmed patterns allow your baby to lift its head against gravity, roll over, sit up, reach and grasp for toys, get on all fours, crawl, stand, and walk - all important skills we want all of our children to learn. Most, but not all, primitive reflexes emerge in-utero and are ready to use during or at the time of birth. 


Why are reflexes important?

As stated above, primitive reflexes enable us to survive, and assist in the development of the whole body movement system. They also serve to protect (activate the fight/flight/freeze response) us in times of stress or perceived threats throughout our lives. Each primitive reflex pattern matures and integrates into the whole body movement system as we grow, learn how to move, and continue to create a network of connections in the brain.


What if these reflexes don't integrate?

A reflex pattern may re-emerge, be delayed, or not integrate as a result of: 

  • Trauma (T/t's) - physical or emotional

  • Acute/chronic stress (big T's and little t's) - stress to a child may not be noticeable to us as adults or parents

  • Premature or traumatic birth/delivery; including c-section births

  • Head trauma or recurrent ear infections

  • Lack of tummy time or opportunities to explore on the floor

  • Compression or tension on the spinal cord (due to vertebral subluxations) creating a slowed or misinterpreted sensory input signal to the brain


Prolonged residual or retained primitive reflexes can result in poor/limited gross and fine motor development, prevent smooth movement patterns, and may limit new learning. In addition to making movements more effortful, retained/residual reflexes can also negatively impact foundational sensory registration and processing (specifically vision and hearing), hand-eye coordination, bilateral coordination, and language skills.


When the brain and central nervous system don't have automatic sensory and motor functions, a child needs to consciously control these aspects of daily life. This then interferes with the brains ability to attend to higher-level cognitive functions such as attention, behavior/self-regulation, refined motor skills, and academic learning.


Red Flags to Watch for:

If your child demonstrates any of the behaviors or symptoms listed below, that may indicate retained/residual primitive reflexes.

  • Premature birth - some reflexes are not fully developed until 40 weeks gestation; babies born even just a few weeks early may have difficulty with reflex maturation

  • Physical/emotional traumas at a young age (birth, infancy, and/or as a toddler)

  • Delayed developmental motor milestones (i.e. rolling over, crawling, sitting independently, etc.)

  • Hypersensitivity to textures, light, sound, or other sensory input

  • Poor muscle tone, slouched posture, or evidence of muscle tension (tightness)

  • Motion sickness

  • Bedwetting/toileting difficulty after being potty trained - typically after age 3-4

  • Clumsiness, lack of coordination, and/or difficulty with balance (in older children)

  • Highly distractible, inattentive, or hyperactive/fidgety (comparable to symptoms of ADHD) beyond what is age appropriate

  • Delayed speech, drooling (beyond age appropriate), poor articulation, and/or feeding difficulties

  • Difficulty at school including: poor handwriting, difficulty reading or copying from the board, or a strong dislike for learning altogether

  • High anxiety, stress, or recent trauma (emotional or physical)

  • Impulsivity, aggressive outbursts, and coping/self-regulation difficulties


Even if your child hasn't demonstrated any of the signs or symptoms listed above, having a routine reflex check by a trained professional is like getting an oil change for your car; we do it to prevent a breakdown in the system. Don't wait until symptoms appear - be proactive and ensure your child has the foundations for learning!

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