Primitive reflexes are involuntary natural movements found in newborns. They can be spontaneous movements or reactions to certain stimuli. Primitive reflexes can occur in different periods of infant development. Primitive reflexes include (1, 2, 3):
- Tonic neck reflex: When a baby’s head turns to one side, their arm on that side will stretch out and the other arm will bend at the elbow.
- Rooting reflex: When the corner or side of a baby’s mouth is touched, they will turn their head toward it and open their mouth. This helps them find their bottle or breast for eating.
- Sucking reflex: When the roof of a baby’s mouth is touched, they will begin to suck.
- Palmar reflex: When a baby’s palm is touched, they will close their fingers into a grasp.
- Step reflex: When a baby is placed upright on a flat service, their feet will move as if they are stepping on the surface.
- Babinski reflex: When the sole of a baby’s foot is touched, their big toe will bend back and their other toes will fan out.
- Galant reflex: When a baby is held facing down, and the side of their spine is touched, they will curve their back away from that side.
- Moro reflex (sometimes called the startle reflex): When a baby is startled by something, they throw back their head, extend their arms and legs, and cry.
What is the purpose of primitive reflexes?
Primitive reflexes help protect and serve the infant’s best interests. They also begin the process towards acquiring voluntary movements that will mimic that intention (2). The movement begins as a brain stem reflex response and transitions into a controlled response. The mind develops deliberate movements to replace the reflexive ones, usually by the completion of toddlerhood or sooner. The integration of these reflexes into deliberate movements is an important part of neural development.
Each reflex has a timespan in which it should occur for an infant. If these reflexes persist beyond the normal timespan, this indicates neurological impairment and can interfere with proper development. Persistence of primitive reflexes has been associated with learning disabilities, mild delays, hyperactivity, issues with motor skills, and cerebral palsy (2, 3). Many of these conditions are caused by preventable birth injuries and associated with medical malpractice.
How do I know if my child has retained a primitive reflex?
The signs of retention in each individual reflex are quite distinct. Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you think they may have a retained primitive reflex. A few examples of retained reflex signs are (3):
- Emotional outbursts, poor impulse control, motion sickness, hypersensitivity, and anxiety are all signs of a possible retained Moro reflex.
- Poor fine motor skills and difficulty with speech and articulation are all signs of a possible retained Palmar reflex.
- Clumsiness, poor concentration, and difficulty sitting for long periods of time are all signs of a possible retained Galant reflex.
- Messy eating, difficulty pronouncing words, and extended thumb-sucking are all signs of a possible retained rooting reflex.
What studies show
A 2018 study analyzed 34 infants ages 12 to 17 months from full-term, uncomplicated pregnancies (4). The infants’ reflexes were studied using Goddard’s scale, wherein a soft brush is used to stimulate the reflexes of the infant and they are rated on a five-point scale. An AQ questionnaire — which analyzes social skills, attention to detail, imagination, communication, and attention switching — was given to both of their parents . Infants were also observed during semi-structured play periods. This study found that primitive reflexes decreased with increasing age, which served as a confirmation of the known maturation of reflexes.
Then, the group was separated, with participants who scored above average on the persistence of reflexes scale making up a group called “high persistence of reflexes” and participants who scored below average on this scale making up a group called “low persistence of reflexes” (4). Motor scores were acquired for each group and it was found that the low persistence of reflexes group had higher motor scores than the high persistence of reflexes group (4). This revealed that the persistence of primitive reflexes was associated with a lower performance on motor activities and interactions with objects and communication.
What treatment options are there?
If you suspect your child may have a retained reflex or a number of retained reflexes, talk to their pediatrician. They may recommend that your child see a physical therapist, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, or another specialist who can test reflexive delays. Different professionals will have different approaches to treating retained reflexes based on their specialty.
About ABC Law Centers
ABC Law Centers was established to focus exclusively on birth injury cases. A “birth injury” is any type of harm to a baby that occurs just before, during, or after birth. This includes issues such as oxygen deprivation, infection, and trauma. While some children with birth injuries make a complete recovery, others can experience developmental delays, difficulty with cognitive and motor skills, or other symptoms.
If a birth injury/subsequent disability could have been prevented with proper care, then it constitutes medical malpractice. Settlements from birth injury cases can cover the costs of lifelong treatment, care, and other crucial resources.
If you believe you may have a birth injury case for your child, please contact us today to learn more. We are happy to talk to you free of any obligation or charge. In fact, clients pay nothing throughout the entire legal process unless we win.
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- Cerebral Palsy (CP)
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- Stanford Children’s Health: Newborn-Reflexes. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2019, from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=newborn-reflexes-90-P02630
- Gieysztor, E. Z., Choińska, A. M., & Paprocka-Borowicz, M. (2018). Persistence of primitive reflexes and associated motor problems in healthy preschool children. Archives of medical science : AMS, 14(1), 167–173. doi:10.5114/aoms.2016.60503
- Grant, V. (2018, February 16). This could be what’s behind your kid’s problems in school. Retrieved July 31, 2019, from https://www.todaysparent.com/toddler/toddler-development/how-retained-primitive-reflexes-could-lead-to-motor-skill-and-behaviour-issues/
- Chinello, A., Di Gangi, V., & Valenza, E. (2016, August 29). Persistent primary reflexes affect motor acts: Potential implications for autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved July 29, 2019, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0891422216301548