- Newborn reflexes are innate survival mechanisms that protect infants from harm and indicate the proper functioning of the brain and nervous system. They include reflexes like the Moro reflex, rooting reflex, and suck reflex.
- Understanding newborn reflexes can help parents recognize their baby’s needs and behavior during the first days of life. These reflexes typically disappear or turn into voluntary actions as the child grows and develops.
All babies have a limited amount of control over their bodies, but to make up for this lack of control, they are born with a set of survival mechanisms that protect them from harm. For this reason, although your little one is very dependent on caregivers, they are not completely defenseless. We can call these movements “newborn reflexes”.
Some reflexes disappear after a few months, once your baby doesn’t need them anymore, and some others turn into voluntary actions once your child begins to gain control over their body. These innate mechanisms usually have a short duration, but they are very important.
It’s crucial to make sure your little one has all their primitive responses present, as they indicate that the brain and nervous system are doing their job correctly. You can verify your baby’s newborn reflexes at home, but your healthcare provider will make sure your little one displays all of their reflexes during their first check-up.
What are newborn reflexes like, and what are they for?
If you’d like to learn more about these fascinating involuntary movements and actions, check out this list of the most common newborn reflexes:
- Moro Reflex: This reflex is also known as the startle reflex, as it commonly occurs when a baby is startled by a loud noise or sudden movement. Sometimes a baby’s own cry can startle them and trigger this reflex. As a response to a sound or movement, you’ll see your baby throw back their head, extend out their arms and legs, and rapidly bring the arms and legs back together. Babies might cry during this episode, or they might even startle themselves as a response to their own crying. This newborn reflex is notorious for waking babies as soon as you lay them down, but don’t worry, it usually happens during the first few weeks after birth, and only lasts until your baby is about two months old.
- Rooting Reflex: This innate action occurs when the corner of your baby’s mouth or their cheek is touched or stroked. Once touched, babies will turn their head and open their mouth while rooting in the direction of the stroking. This movement helps your baby find the breast or bottle and begin to feed. During their first days of life, babies will root from side to side, and turn their head toward the nipple or the bottle until finally latching on. After that, babies will simply move their head and mouth into position to suck into the nipple or bottle. This reflex lasts for about 4 months and can help babies be prepared for the suck reflex. Also, this is one of the newborn reflexes that changes into voluntary behavior.
- Suck Reflex: This survival action is present even before your baby is born. If you were lucky, you might have seen your little one suck on their thumb during an ultrasound starting from 36 weeks of gestation – when this reflex is fully developed. The suck reflex is crucial for your baby’s intake of milk. When the nipple of your breast or bottle touches the roof of the baby’s mouth, your little one will automatically begin sucking. If it were not for this automatic action, your little one would not be able to take in the food needed to grow and thrive. Coordinating these rhythmic movements while swallowing and breathing, although being instinctive, can be a complicated task for a newborn, and some babies may not be efficient at sucking at the beginning, but with practice they will learn to manage this skill. Rooting, sucking and bringing their hands to their mouths are movements that can be considered cues for feeding during the first weeks of life. After feeding is established, babies commonly use these movements to console themselves.
- Tonic Neck Reflex: This automatic response is also known as the fencing posture, because of the position your baby engages in. It looks like this: babies turn their head to one side, they straighten the arm on that same side and bend the opposite arm as if they were fencing. This is a reflex that can be very subtle, so you may sometimes not see this response, and it will not appear if your child is crying or disturbed. This posture disappears around the time your little one is five to seven months old. You may notice that the Tonic Neck reflex and the Moro reflex are present equally on both sides of your child’s body. If the reflex is not present, or if you notice that the reflex presents differently on one side of the body, talk to your pediatrician about it.
- Walking / Stepping Reflex: When babies are held by the armpits and their feet touch a flat surface they will immediately place one foot in front of the other as if walking. It’s such a sight to see your baby “walk”, but be sure to properly support them by the armpits, and be careful to support their head as well if you try this at home. The reflex can first appear after delivery, when a baby is laying on their mother’s abdomen and crawling to the breast. This newborn reflex will disappear after 2 months, then reappear as they learn the voluntary behavior of walking.
- Grasp / Palmar Reflex: If you stroke the palm of a newborn’s hand, they will automatically close their fingers tightly in a grasp. With time, this automatic response will turn into a voluntary action, but for now enjoy the tight grip of your baby’s hand around your finger! This reflex lasts until about 5 to 6 months of age.
- Babinski / Plantar Reflex: Similar to the last reflex, this automatic response appears when the sole of your baby’s foot is firmly stroked resulting in the big toe bending back towards the top of the foot while the other toes fan out. This reflex is normal up to about 2 years of age and may even disappear as early as 12 months.
Learning about newborn reflexes and what each of them are for can help you identify your baby’s needs and understand their behavior a little better during their first days of life. Now that you know how to recognize them, observe your baby and see how they react to your touch and other stimuli from their environment.
Remember that every baby has a unique development, so don’t worry if some things are a little different. However, if you have any particular concerns don’t hesitate to ask your pediatrician or healthcare provider.
For more information be sure to check out the following pages: