There’s something magical about the first time your newborn grabs hold of your finger, isn’t there? Believe it or not, this is one of many skills they are born with that help them survive and thrive.
These movements are called newborn reflexes (primitive reflexes) and are all part of normal development, helping your baby adjust to life outside the womb.
Newborn reflexes are involuntary, meaning they happen without your baby trying. This is similar to when a health care provider taps your knee and your leg jerks. Some reflexes will stay with your baby for months, while others will last a lifetime.
Read on to learn more about newborn reflexes and how to support your baby’s growth.
Common newborn reflexes
There are many different types of newborn reflexes. Here are six of the most common ones to watch out for:
Moro reflex or startle reflex
When a baby experiences a sudden loss of support or hears a loud noise, they instinctively react by extending their arms, legs and fingers.
“This reflex is like a built-in alarm system that helps the baby cling onto their caregiver when they perceive a threat or loss of support,” said Ismaeel Bakhsh, MD, a pediatrician with Banner Health.
“The rooting reflex helps your baby find the breast or bottle,” Dr. Bakhsh said. When you gently stroke or touch your baby’s cheek, they should turn their head toward the touch and open their mouth in search of a nipple for feeding.
The sucking reflex happens when you touch your baby’s mouth or insert a nipple into their mouth and they start sucking. This is a natural reflex but it does take practice. Your newborn has to figure out how to suck while breathing and swallowing at the same time.
There’s something special about the first time your baby wraps their little hand around your finger. No wonder this is one of the most noticeable and talked about reflexes. When an object is placed in a baby’s palm or foot, they will curl their fingers or toes around it.
Stroking the sole of the foot causes the big toe to bend back and the other toes to fan out or spread.
When held upright with feet touching a surface, newborns make stepping movements. “This is a normal reflex that is believed to prepare the baby for later motor skills like walking,” Dr. Bakhsh said.
How long do newborn reflexes last?
Many newborn reflexes fade as the baby’s nervous system develops. For example, the rooting reflex fades around three to four months, while the Moro reflex may disappear by three to six months.
However, some reflexes (like blinking, coughing, yawning, gagging and sneezing) last into adulthood.
When should I contact my child’s health care provider?
Every baby is unique, so differences in the timing and strength of reflexes are normal. Factors like premature birth, health conditions or environmental factors may affect how these reflexes develop.
Regular well-baby checkups with your child’s health care provider can help check your baby’s progress and address concerns. Reach out if you have specific worries about how your baby is developing. The provider can provide guidance and make sure everything is on track.
Tips to encourage your child’s development
To monitor your child’s development, consider these tips:
1. Keep a development journal: Keep a journal to track your newborn’s progress.
2. Encourage movement and play: Engage your child in physical activities to support their reflexes and movement. Dr. Bakhsh suggests the following:
- Lifting: Gently lift your baby’s arms and legs up and down one at a time to help with their Moro reflex.
- Tummy time: Place your baby on their tummy while you are watching them. This will help strengthen their neck and trunk muscles.
- Rocking and swinging: Gentle rocking or swinging motions can help develop balance and coordination. Gently rock or sway with your baby, or use a baby swing.
- Sucking and rooting: Have your baby suck on something (like a pacifier) without actually getting food. This helps strengthen sucking or rooting reflexes.
3. Talk to your child’s provider: If you’re worried about your baby's reflexes, talk to your child’s provider or a pediatric occupational therapist. They can check your baby’s progress and give you advice that fits your child's individual needs.
4. Remember every child is different: Every child develops at their own pace. Celebrate your child’s achievements and encourage their pace.
Your baby’s reflexes are there to help them grow and develop. Regular well-checks can ensure your baby’s reflexes are on track.
While variations are expected, keep an eye on any delays or changes. Contact your child’s health care provider or a Banner Health specialist if you have questions or concerns about your child’s growth and development.