What are Primitive Reflexes?

Primitive Reflexes, also known as neonatal reflexes are the reflexes we are born with for survival. They are present for the first 3-18 months and are actions or motions that the baby does involuntary. Your baby’s central nervous system (CNS) — their brain and spinal cord — automatically orders your baby’s muscles to react. An example is the rooting and sucking reflex for feeding.

In normal neurotypical development, these reflexes naturally integrate (or become supressed) in a sequential order as the motor or postural reflexes emerge for example sitting and crawling. Postural reflexes are more mature patterns of response that control balance, coordination, and sensory-motor integration and development. Correct integration is a sign of the central nervous system maturing. 

Types of Primitive Reflexes

Moro Reflex

The Moro reflex acts as a baby’s primitive fight/flight reaction and is typically replaced by the adult startle reflex by four months old. If a child experiences a retained Moro reflex beyond 4 months, he may become over sensitive and over-reactive to sensory stimulus. This results in poor impulse control, sensory overload, anxiety and emotions, and social immaturity. Some additional signs of a retained Moro reflex are motion sickness, poor balance, poor coordination, easily distracted, unable to adapt well to change, and mood swings.

Rooting Reflex

The rooting reflex assists in the act of breastfeeding and is activated by stroking a baby’s cheek, causing her to turn and open her mouth. Retention of the rooting reflex beyond four months may result in difficulty with solid foods, poor articulation, and thumb sucking.

Palmar Reflex

The palmar reflex is the automatic flexing of fingers to grab an object and should integrate by six months. If the palmer reflex is retained, a child may have difficulty with fine motor skills, stick out tongue while writing and exhibit messy handwriting.

Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)

Asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR) is initiated when laying babies on their back and turning their head to one side. The arm and leg of the side they’re looking should extend while the opposite side bends. This reflex serves as a precursor to hand-eye coordination and should stop by six months.

Spinal Galant Reflex

The spinal galant reflex happens when the skin along the side of an infant’s back is stroked, the infant will swing towards the side that was stroked. This reflex helps with the birthing process and should inhibit between three and nine months. If it persists, it may affect a child’s posture, coordination attention, and ability to sit still. Retention of the spinal galant reflex is also associated with bedwetting.

Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR)

The tonic labyrinthine reflex (TLR) is the basis for head management and helps prepare an infant for rolling over, creeping, crawling, standing, and walking. This reflex initiates when you tilt an infant’s head backward while placed on the back causing legs to stiffen, straighten, and toes to point. Hands also become fisted and elbows bend. It should integrate gradually as other systems mature and disappear by 3 1/2 years old. If retained, the TLR can lead to poor muscle tone, a tendency to walk on toes, motion sickness, and poor balance.

Landau Reflex

The landau reflex assists with posture development and technically isn’t a primitive reflex as it is not present at birth. It is when a baby lifts his head up causing their trunk to flex. It typically emerges at around 3 months of age and is fully integrated by one year. If the landau reflex persists beyond this point, children may experience short-term memory problems, poor motor development, and low muscle tone.

Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)

Also known as the crawling reflex, symmetrical tonic neck reflex (STNR) is present briefly after birth and reappears around six to nine months.  This reflex helps the body split at the midline to assist in crawling – as the head is brought towards chest, the arms bend and legs extend. It should disappear by 11 months. Developmental delays related to poor muscle tone, tendency to slump while sitting, and inability to sit still and concentrate can result if the STNR is retained.

What happens when Primitive Reflexes are retained? 

Ideally, as a child’s brain matures, the involuntary movements become controlled motor responses (movement patterns). If this doesn’t happen, the child may struggle with both motor (movement) and cognitive (thinking/learning) skills.

2016 study Trusted Source suggested that preschool children who had retained the TLR and ATNR reflexes had difficulty with motor skills such as running, cycling, throwing, and catching a ball. An unintegrated ATNR reflex may also lead to poor eye tracking. This is an essential skill for learning to read and write. The same study of 35 children concluded that children with an unintegrated STNR reflex showed poor posture, poor eye-hand coordination, and focusing difficulties. They also had difficulty sitting still at a desk, learning to swim, and playing ball games. 

The research indicates that persistence of primitive reflexes contributes to issues such as coordination, balance, and sensory perceptions. Plus issues with fine motor skills, sleep, immunity, energy, impulse control, concentration, and social, emotional, and academic learning. Often this can lead to diagnosis such as ADHD, sensory processing disorder, autism, and learning disabilities.

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 crawling, chronic infections and vertebral misalignments.

The good news is, we know that connections in the brain and spinal cord can change and develop in a way that may lead to improvements in these symptoms (neural plasticity). Ohana has applied the emerging neuroplasticity research to develop a program that focuses on improving the foundation of brain and brain body connection. The Primitive Reflex Program includes a personalized plan to integrate a child’s retained primitive reflexes. Your dedicated team will help your child become the best version of themselves. 

If you suspect your child has retained primitive reflexes that may be contributing to behaviour issues and/or academic challenges, contact Ohana Chiropractic & Wellbeing to book an assessment. The Ohana Primitive Reflex Initial Consultation is an objective assessment whereby we quantifiably measure each area of neurological function. This includes motor, sensory, behavioural, social, emotional, and academic. This allows us to better understand your child’s unique challenges and to put together the most tailored plan for success. 

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