Primitive Reflexes: why are they important to my child’s development?

What are primitive reflexes?

Newborn babies have their own unique set of reflexes known as primitive reflexes that typically disappear within the first year of life.  They are automatic, instinctual move­ments that assist in development, growth and survival. Most of us are familiar with reflexes such as stroking a baby’s cheek to turn their head toward the breast to feed; or placing your finger in their hand to cause them to grasp your finger tightly. These interactions delight parents and encourage bonding, but their primary purpose is to help babies eat, crawl, reach, learn, and interact with the world around them.

Each reflex is needed for developing higher areas of the brain and serves a specific purpose for a period of time. Higher areas of the brain eventually take over and ‘replace’ these reflexes with higher learning processes. These reflexes lay the foundation for the child’s nervous system, which is responsible for processing information through taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. If the nervous system is not developed properly, the child will have trouble regulating, processing and interpreting information from one or more of their senses.

Reflex movements are the first founda­tions of the nervous system. Like a block tower, all further development depends on the readiness of the foundation. Ideally, primitive reflexes merge into more sophisticated move­ments and become integrated. An integrated childhood reflex is no longer active.

Why do some children still have retained reflexes?

Retention of primitive reflexes can be caused by a variety of factors:

  • The birthing process: caesarean births or traumatic birthing process that resulted in premature births, breach positions or births involving forceps or suction.
  • Illness or injuries: chronic ear infections, head injuries or trauma in infancy and early childhood.
  • Babies who skip developmental milestones: such as walking without first crawling or delayed crawling.
  • Lack of tummy time in early childhood: Babies that do not spend enough time on their tummy in the prone position or lack space during the creeping and crawling stages of development are also prone to retaining reflexes.
  • Excessive use of plastic carriers, playpens, walking rings, jumpers and car seats: these restrict movements that are required for brain development.

What happens if some reflexes are retained and not properly integrated?

Retained reflexes trigger the “fight or flight” response, creating chronic stress. Even when there is no logical reason for stress, we can feel stressed because our physiology is constantly reacting as if threatened.

When reflexes are retained, body parts cannot easily move independently. A movement of the head causes an auto­matic movement in the limbs, hands or feet. Extra limb movements happen below the surface level and cause confusion in the neuro-sensory-motor system. This confusion creates difficulties with growth, coordination, reading, writing, speaking and thinking.

Retained reflexes cause weak muscle tone, fatigue and the need for greater amounts of effort to complete tasks. We unconsciously learn to compensate for and suppress retained reflexes, which can cause considerable ten­sion and drain energy. Skills that should be automatic (like reading and writing) can be done only with continuous conscious effort.

Signs my child may have retained primitive reflexes

There are a few key signs to watch out for to determine if your child has one or multiple retained primitive reflexes. Some are easy to detect, while others are more subtle:

  • Hypersensitivity to sensory input (touch, sounds, smell and taste).
  • Poor posture, balance and coordination.
  • Poor eye-hand coordination, eye tracking and difficulties with ball games.
  • Difficulty with motor skills such as running, cycling, swimming, throwing, or catching a ball.
  • Difficulty concentrating or sustaining attention.
  • Poor impulse control and emotional maturity.
  • Excessive fidgeting/restlessness when sitting at the desk.
  • Messy handwriting and weak reading abilities.
  • Bedwetting after the age of 5.

Will my child outgrow these reflexes?

This is a common question we get from parents. In most cases, your child will not outgrow retained primitive reflexes. The body ‘hangs on’ to them for survival. It is only through intervention with a trained therapist that we can make the changes needed for the brain and the body to integrate these reflexes. If the child does not receive intervention, you will most likely continue to see attention issues, emotional problems, learning delays and development interruptions as the child grows older. The gaps continue to widen.

How can Occupational Therapy help my child?

The brain is extremely plastic. It can change for better or for worse, at almost any age. This means we can integrate the reflexes and rebuild the foundation of your child’s nervous system. If your child has retained one of more primitive reflexes, a trained occupational therapist can guide you through therapeutic exercises that address and replace them (where necessary) with higher-level reflexes. Parents have reported a significant improvement following a combination of occupational therapy intervention and at-home exercises for retained primitive reflexes.

The occupational therapist will start by assessing which reflexes need to be integrated. Then they use a series of age-ap­propriate activities specifically designed for each reflex. The movements in these activities are highly effective because they tap into the same system we are designed with at birth for reflex integration and brain development. Adding play to the activities is fun, healing and transformative.

The occupational therapist will also show you at-home exercises to do with your child to help. These must be completed slowly and purposefully for maximum results. Performing the exercises slowly will integrate the reflexes faster and more efficiently.

For more in information or to setup an assessment with one of our trained occupational therapists at the Success Therapy Centre, click here.

Helpful Resources

Video exercises for integrating the Moro Reflex:

Video exercises for integrating the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex:

Video exercise for integrating the Spinal Galant Reflex:


The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of the Success Therapy Centre.

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