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Baby’s Reflexes and Brain Development

By Dr. Judy Soborowicz

You’ve no doubt heard about the benefit of play and movement with your newborn. New parenthood is an amazing time, for many reasons, including the opportunity to have a unique window of time to observe a developing brain right before your eyes. Automatic movements are programmed prior to your child’s birth for the purpose of laying down connections in the brain, setting the neurological groundwork for developing the more mature brain, and making possible a lifetime of successful adaptation.

The automatic movements, called reflexes are referred to as primitive, because they are outward reflection of the development of the more primitive part of your newborn’s brain. They are essential to the healthy development of the child’s/adult’s ability to socially integrate, roll, balance, crawl, walk, concentrate, and focus. Most of the primitive reflexes will be integrated into more mature postural reflexes by age 3 to 6 months, and certainly by age one year. A failure of the infant to display these reflex movements, and or integrate, can lead to developmental delay for the child/ adult.

Babies usually display sucking, rooting, startling, grasping, and tonic reflexes shortly after birth. The sucking reflex allows for nourishment for the baby in getting food; the rooting reflex stimulates the baby’s head in the direction of the food source. Observe when you feed your baby. Rubbing the cheek lightly should initiate your baby to turn the head to same side. The ability to suck is preloaded and is important both for the baby’s survival and brain development. When these reflexes are not well integrated, problems can develop. In the child/adult it may demonstrate as poor articulation (speech development), tactile sensitivity around the face (thumb sucking), and or difficult with solid foods.

A baby is also born with the startle reflex This reflex is displayed any time baby is abruptly moved or aroused by a loud noise. The response observed is a sudden throwing outward of arms and legs, followed by a curling into the body. This reflex is a protective response of the body. When not well integrated, problems observed in the child/adult may emerge, such as poor focus, poor impulse control, withdrawn or timid nature, anxiety, motion sickness, aggressiveness, and anxiousness. This reflex activates the fight-o-flight response, (developing sympathetic nerve system), therefore it can also be a stressor to the adrenal system, thereby affecting the immune system, increasing risk for allergies or asthma.

Your baby will also show a grasp reflex which is observed when pressure is placed on the palm of the hand, or just below the baby’s toes. The finger and/or toes will curl and close over into a fist or toe curl. The possible effects in the child/adult of not integrating this reflex well are difficult in writing, poor manual dexterity, and poor fin motor skills.

The tonic neck, or Fencers, reflex is easily observed by laying the baby on its back and watching the arm position in relation to the direction of head turn.  Wherever the nose is pointed the arm and leg should be fully straightened, and the arm and leg on the opposite bent slightly. This reflex serves as a precursor to hand-eye coordination, and for activities crossing the midline. Fencers reflex activated during the birthing process assists the passing of the head and shoulders through the birth canal. Problems with integration of this reflex in the child/adult include difficult with reading/writing, tasks that require both sides of the body, chronic or recurring neck injury/pain, often on the same side, and scoliosis or curvature of the spine.

Reasons for failure to integrate include subluxation caused by birth trauma, excessive falls, c-section, anesthetics, or toxicity. Between the firs three months to one year of life, the primitive reflexes should become inhibited by more mature postural reflexes While inhibited, they allow for management of posture, balance adjustment, eye movement, and image stability in a much more controlled way. Awareness of the presence and importance of primitive reflexes can help new parents be proactive custodians of their baby’s brain development.

To promote integration, include time during the day for your infant to stretch out and move its arms and legs freely, including tummy time. This will allow for increased nerve and muscle tone and promote integration. It is important to observe if your baby is displaying a strong affinit for one side or other. This may present as difficult turning head to nurse on one side, the ‘c’ curve of the baby when they are held under arm (same every time), or inability to nurse well at all on either side. Use toys and other stimulus to promote bilateral movement. Lack of integration of primitive reflexes can lead to problems with development of the more sophisticated parts of the brain, and affect the child’s/adult’s social and academic abilities.  Chiropractic care can address possible issues that can cause a developing child’s reflexes to progress. Movements initiate brain development; chiropractic care promotes healthy movement throughout a lifetime.

For more information, contact Dr. Judy Soborowicz at Active Health Chiropractic, 715-834-6333.

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