IN THIS ARTICLE
What are newborn reflexes? | What do newborn reflexes mean? | How many newborn reflexes are there? | How long do newborn reflexes last? | What reflex symptoms should I contact my doctor about? | Are there any exercises I should do to help my baby’s reflex development?
What are newborn reflexes?
Reflexes are involuntary movements in response to stimulation, and we all have them. What you may not know is that there is a special set of reflexes that are specific to our little bundles of joy. The presence of newborn reflexes, which are sometimes referred to as primitive reflexes, are signposts of how well your baby is growing. These milestones are good benchmarks to measure and keep an eye on as your little one develops.
What do newborn reflexes mean?
Reflexes are common at all ages. In fact, some reflexes from infancy last into adulthood. One example is the gag reflex, which causes gagging when the throat is stimulated. However, other reflexes are unique to infants, and they typically grow out of these reflexes within a few months of birth.
How many newborn reflexes are there?
While some people only list five or six newborn reflexes, there are actually nine primitive reflexes you can expect baby to have during their infancy. Some may be obvious, and some may be so slight that you don’t notice them.
1. Newborn Moro reflex
- What causes the Newborn Moro reflex? The Moro reflex happens when baby is on their back and their head becomes unsupported.
- What does Newborn Moro reflex look like? Often confused or combined with the startle reflex, your baby will look startled and extend their arms with palms up and thumbs flexed.
- What could the absence of Newborn Moro reflex mean? If this reflex isn’t witnessed during baby visits with your pediatrician, it may indicate a shoulder bone or nerve injury or a more serious problem with the brain or spinal cord. It’s best to consult with your doctor if you suspect anything is amiss.
2. Newborn sucking reflex
- What causes the sucking reflex? Something touching baby’s lips or the roof of the mouth—like a nipple, bottle or even pinky–prompts the sucking reflex.
- What does sucking reflex look like? You’ll notice that baby will automatically start to make a sucking movement with their mouths. It’s a reflexive response to believing they are about to be fed. Sucking triggers swallowing, which is also calming. Some babies may swallow air with their sucking reflex, which may cause baby gas, but it’s nothing to worry about.
- What could the absence of the sucking reflex mean? A weak sucking reflex is typically related to a lack of oxygen at birth or premature birth. If your baby isn’t showing the reflex, it can be more serious and often an indicator of other congenital syndromes that are present immediately after giving birth. Contact your pediatrician if they aren’t already aware.
3. Newborn rooting reflex
- What causes the newborn rooting reflex? Stroking your baby’s cheek will cause the response.
- What does the rooting response look like? Your baby will turn toward the side of the cheek that was stroked, open their mouth, and begin sucking and searching or “rooting” for what may be a food source. If they don’t find it right away, they will turn their heads and root from side to side to try to find the food source, in decreasing head turns until the nipple or bottle is found.
- What could the absence of the rooting reflex mean? Premature babies may need to develop their rooting reflex, but since this reflex is not one that baby needs to retain for very long, a poor rooting reflex shouldn’t typically be a cause for concern.
4. Newborn startle reflex
- What causes the newborn startle reflex? The reaction is anything that also might startle a child or adult. It can be a loud noise or quick movement—anything unexpected and surprising.
- What does the startle reflex look like?The response looks like sudden, jerky motions and cries. While it’s sometimes confused with the Moro reflex, the startle reflex causes baby to pull their arms and legs in rather than spread them out.
- What could the absence of the startle reflex mean? Not seeing baby startle could be due to a neurological issue, but more often it’s thanks to baby only being subtly startled. This is often the case for little ones who are used to noise thanks to a family dog, music or the radio being on frequently or nearby construction, for example.
5. Newborn stepping reflex
- What causes the newborn stepping reflex? Sometimes called the walking or dance reflex, you’ll see this reflex in action when one of baby’s feet is firmly on a flat surface and the other is not.
- What does the newborn stepping reflex look like?Your little one will appear to "walk" the unsupported foot forward.
- What could the absence of the newborn stepping reflex mean? If your baby doesn’t seem to have the step reflex in their first two months, it may be an indication of lingering birth trauma or an illness—or perhaps simply your baby hadn’t had a chance to show off their little steps. If it goes away after roughly 8 weeks, there’s no need to worry because the reflex fades after two months.
6. Newborn grasp reflex
- What causes the newborn grasp reflex? You’ll see the reaction when you place a finger or item in the palm of baby's hand (known as the “palmar grasp reflex”), or on the underside of a foot (known as the “plantar grasp reflex”).
- What does the newborn grasp reflex look like?Your baby will tightly grab ahold of whatever’s been placed in the palm (or curl their toes toward the item pressed to the foot). You may be surprised at how strong it is! Grasping is a common milestone parents look for from birth to three months. This is one of the most noticeable and talked about reflexes.
- What could the absence of the newborn grasp reflex mean? The appearance of the grasp reflex is sometimes affected by birth trauma, illness or medications that baby may be on.
7. Newborn tonic neck reflex
- What causes the newborn tonic neck reflex? Lying on their back prompts baby to move their head to the side.
- What does the newborn tonic neck reflex look like?If baby’s head is facing right, the right arm will reach out and the left will be rigid with a clenched fist (and vice versa). Fun fact: this pose mimics that of a fencer’s, which leads to this reflex sometimes being called the fencer’s position. En garde!
- What could the absence of the newborn tonic neck reflex mean? Around the five-to-seven-month mark, the reflex goes away, so it’s sometimes difficult to spot. If you do notice it and it persists asymmetrically, your little one may need medical evaluation.
8. Newborn truncal incurvation reflex
- What causes the newborn truncal incurvation reflex? While it may be a mouthful, this reaction is also known as the Galant reflex. It’s caused if you stroke or touch either side of baby’s spine while they are on their tummy.
- What does the newborn truncal incurvation reflex look like?Your little one’s hips will shift toward the touch in a movement that looks a bit like shimmying or dancing.
- What could the absence of the newborn truncal incurvation reflex mean? The lack of this reflex may point toward nerve or brain damage, it’s best to book an appointment with your pediatrician to check it out.
9. Newborn parachute reflex
- What causes the newborn parachute reflex? In older infants, this reflex is prompted when baby is quickly moved into a forward-facing position—as though they’re falling.
- What does the newborn parachute reflex look like?Baby will extend their arms forward to break the perceived fall, similar to the body position skydivers adopt during a free fall.
- What could the absence of the newborn parachute reflex mean? The parachute reflex is one newborn reflex that never goes away. If you don’t notice it in your little one, it may indicate the need for neurological testing and treatment.
How long do newborn reflexes last?
Some newborn reflexes will be integrated and become voluntary movements as early as two months, while others will continue on until roughly 12 months. That said, some of your baby’s reflexes that started from birth will last long into adulthood. Think of any reflexes or involuntary reactions you have. Here’s some examples of lifelong reflexes:
- Blinking in response to light or eye irritation
- Coughing when the mouth, throat or airway is stimulated
- Gagging when the throat or back of mouth are irritated
- Sneezing when the nose or nasal passages are irritated (interestingly, 18 to 35 percent of the population sneeze when exposed to bright light as well!)
- Yawning to deliver more oxygen to the body; for example, if you’re tired or breathing too slowly. Yawning also happens when you see another human or animal yawning. Fun fact: scientists have yet to explain why the second yawning phenomenon (called yawn contagion) happens–their best guess is that it’s a kind of social mirroring.
What reflex symptoms should I contact my doctor about?
Talk to your doctor if you notice any movements or reflexes that don’t seem normal to you. If a reflex that should disappear as baby ages continues into toddlerhood and beyond, that may be a sign of an issue with the brain or nervous system. Your baby’s doctor will monitor reflexes as your little one ages to ensure appropriate development and ensure timely intervention if something is amiss
Are there any exercises I should do to help my baby’s reflex development?
All of the reflexes noted above are normal. You don’t need to do anything to help them develop or go away. You will likely notice most of them in your daily interactions with your baby, and they can be fun to watch for. Over time, the reflexes will naturally disappear, so enjoy them while you can!
There’s some other fascinating newborn development tips to keep an eye out for. Newborn senses and newborn milestones can also help you keep track of your baby’s remarkable (and sometimes adorable!) development.