Baby Reflexes and Training In Case Of Delayed Responses

baby holding mother's finger

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Baby reflexes are amazing to notice and learn. In the first few weeks itself, your baby displays a number of reflexes, like sucking a finger when it’s put in the baby’s mouth or the baby shutting his/her eyes in front of bright light. Such automatic responses are known as reflexes. Babies are born with automatic responses, some of which remain for months, while some vanish in weeks.

Reflexes change into voluntary behaviour also. For example, a baby’s rooting reflex, which happens when the baby turns his/her head in arcs after we stroke our finger near his/her mouth. This reflex actually helps to find the nipple during the feed, which is voluntary behaviour. This reflex remains from birth until 4 months.

Another reflex is Sucking Reflex, which is a survival reflex that develops even before the baby is born. You must have noticed in an ultrasound during pregnancy that babies suck their thumb in the womb. This is because of the presence of the sucking reflex. The voluntary behaviour for this reflex is when the baby breastfeeds – when the nipple touches the babies lips, they start sucking for their survival. This reflex has two stages. The first stage is when the babies first place their lips around the areola (the pigmented skin around the nipple), and then they press the nipple between their tongue and palate which creates negative pressure, also known as suction, that forces the milk out. The entire action is known as “expression”. The second stage is as soon as babies move their tongue around the areola and they start sucking by suction as this secures the breast nipple in the babies’ mouth.

Another important reflex is Moro Reflex, which is present from birth until 4-6 months. Moro reflex is also known as a startling reflex. During this reflex, babies suddenly get startled by a loud noise or bright light, and they first extend (stretch out) their arms and legs away from their body and to the side and then again curl them in as if in an embrace, just like they curl up in the womb. While extending the arms and legs, they feel the sensation of free-falling.

Moving on, the next reflex is the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR), which is stimulated when the baby turns the head to one side. In this reflex, when the head is turned the arms and the legs on the same side will extend. Which means the baby will stretch out the arms and legs in the direction he/she moves his/her head, while the opposite limbs will bend or curl. This reflex usually remains from birth to 7 months. It assists with the early eye-hand co-ordination, provides vestibular stimulation and changes the distribution of muscle tone. It’s important for  parents to note that if this reflex remains active in a child at later age, then it can affect his/her hand-eye co-ordination and lead to the following –

  • Inability to control the arm while writing.
  • Difficulty in lateral eye movements/ visual tracking that is also necessary for reading and writing.
  • Inability to cross the vertical midline. A right-handed child may find it difficult to write on the left side of the page.
  • Difficulty in bilateral integration that is differentiated and integrated use of two sides of the body.
  • Difficulty in controlling automatic balance.

Similar to this is Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR), which starts at 4 to 6 months, and ends at 12 months. In this reflex, with neck flexion (neck bending), upper extremities will flex, the lower extremities will extend (stretch out). And, with neck extension, the upper extremities will extend and lower extremities will flex. Importance of this reflex is that it assists in the development of bilateral patterns of body movements and also allows the child to move up against gravity.

You will see another reflex which is known as a palmar and plantar reflex, which happens when you touch the inside of your baby’s palm with your finger. Your baby then involuntarily closes his/her fingers around your finger. Similarly, if you stroke the sole of your baby’s foot, he/she will curl the toes immediately. The voluntary behaviour for this reflex is when babies are able to take their own weight and stand on their feet. Palmar reflex is from birth to 6 months, and plantar reflex is from birth to 12 months or till the baby learns to walk.

Another one is walking/stepping reflex, which happens when you hold your baby with both your hands below their underarms. You will notice babies keep one foot ahead of the other in a tendency to walk. This reflex disappears after 2 months, but the voluntary behaviour is at 11-12 months when the baby learns to walk.

Also, the Crawling reflex occurs in babies who have not learned to walk yet. This reflex is an alternating pattern of flexion and extension (bending and stretching) of arms and legs which is performed with the belly on the ground, and this reflex initiates crawling and disappears until 9-10 months.

There is one protective reflex known as Parachute reflex, which occurs in older babies when the baby is held upright and then rotated quickly to face forwards. In this, the child’s protective mechanism will be to extend the arms forward as if to prevent falling. This reflex appears long before your baby walks.

Spinal Galant Reflex prepares the hips for walking and crawling as its purpose is to encourage the range of motion in the hips. If you stroke the lower back around the spine, the reflex causes babies to curve their hips outwards. Some researches state that it prompts urination. That is why the baby often urinate when the diaper is secured around their hips, and this reflex should disappear after 9 months.

The Landau Reflex indicates a normal motor system in the baby, and this is performed when the infant is held in the horizontal prone position (tummy facing towards the floor). The infant will lift the head and extend the neck and the trunk, and when you bend the neck (passive flexion of the neck), the infant’s entire body will flex. If this reaction is absent, it means there is a presence of hypotonicity (low tone), which indicates motor system defects.

These amazing reflexes are god-gifted and are meant for some voluntary behaviours in babies. However, some babies develop these reflexes a little late in their life. But, don’t worry, you can train your baby if his/her milestones are delayed.

Training babies In Case of Delayed Milestones

Being a physiotherapist, I want to give you a few guidelines based on my experience on how you can train your babies on your own in case of delayed milestones. Being a mother, you are the best teacher to train your baby, so the key to success is to follow the baby’s reactions and actions. For example, in case of rooting and sucking reflexes, you can buy sucking baby toys and hold them near your baby’s lips or gently stroke the toy around the lips. Because the baby will naturally be taking the toys in his/her mouth to feeling their texture. Repeated movements will activate their reflex. Here, the important point to note is that whether it’s an infant, a toddler or an older child, they need repetition in learning things.

Moro Reflex can be best trained by placing the baby on a medicine paediatric ball, with his/her tummy facing towards the ceiling. But, keep holding your baby gently at all times to prevent fall. This will lead to stimulation of automatic reaction for the baby to prevent a fall as soon as you place him/her on the ball. Repeat this and slowly and gradually, the reflex will be activated. Similarly, for Landau Reflex, it can be done in both prone lying and supine lying positions, which means with the tummy facing down and up towards the ceiling on a medicine ball.

You can follow a similar exercise for Parachute Reflex too. The only difference from Moro Reflex is the baby’s position. In this one, place the baby on the tummy, and his/her body should have an automatic response. He/she will flare the arms and feet, as explained earlier. Keep practising, and gradually, the reflex will be evident.

For the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex, you are the best person to decide how to stimulate it. Use all the verbal and visual stimulating clues that can make your baby turn his/her head in an arc. Training the baby on a mat will be more beneficial. Change the pitch of your voice to call your baby and hold bright coloured dangling objects in your hand to distract his/her, so that the baby turns or rotates his/her head again and again. But, do remember that repetition takes time to activate the reflexes to normal. For symmetrical tonic neck reflex, you make your baby stand from the sitting position or stand on all fours position. All these positions are against gravity. Also, in the sitting position, encourage the baby to take a ball from your hand with the use of his/her hands alternatively, while you keep changing holding it in a different direction.

For walking/stepping reflex, hold your baby below the underarms and make him feel the floor with his/her sole of the foot. You may also make your baby touch different surfaces like hard or soft. The good ones are the playground surfaces, so when the baby feels them, the reflex automatically stimulates. Also, we can add the training of Spinal Galant Reflex by making the baby sit on the floor so that they can take their weight on their buttocks. You can also stroke your child’s back next to the spine repeatedly to stimulate the reflex.

I would recommend based on my experience, don’t stick to one room to train your baby, take him/her outdoors to explore more because that will distract your baby to do something new out of his/her curiosity.

Hope you like it!

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