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Palmar Reflex: Where the Problem Begins with Poor Handwriting, Pencil Grip and Fine Motor Development
This article contains information regarding a retained Palmar reflex that can harm your child’s fine motor development. Affiliate links are included for your convenience. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.
Infants have the ability to grasp an object from the moment they are born. This grasp is very strong, as you may know if your baby ever grabbed your hair, necklace or long earring. If you’ve experienced your baby’s death grip on your hair or necklace, it seems only natural to gently pry open their hand to release their grip. However, did you know that you could easily get out of this grasp without forcing your tiny baby’s hand open? All you need to do is gently stroke the back side of their hand and your baby will usually let go.
With almost no effort at all, your baby’s Palmar reflex, or grasp reflex, has saved the day and your hair. As your baby continues to grow, all of their movements and reactions are fascinating to discover and watch as each one of their reflexes develop.
What is the Palmar reflex and why is it important?
The Palmar reflex is a primitive reflex that emerges around 11 weeks in utero or in the womb. It continues to develop when the baby is born and it remains active until the infant is around two to four months old. The Palmar reflex is activated whenever something causes pressure, touches, or strokes the infant’s palm.
When the baby uses their Palmar reflex, they will close their fingers around the object, whether it is your finger, a piece of fabric or a toy. In your child’s early months, the Palmar reflex is also activated with sucking movements by the baby, for instance when they are nursing. This is because the hands and mouth are linked together by the Babkin response. The Babkin response happens when the palms of an infant are stimulated and the mouth opens.
The Babkin response is also linked with the Rooting reflex, which helps the baby suck to eat. Because of these movements, the hands and mouth become linked as they work together.
The hands and mouth are the baby’s central tools for exploration and expression. The Palmar reflex should lay dormant or “go to sleep” by the time the baby is four months old, almost as if the reflex had disappeared, which is a natural part of development. During this time, the baby will frequently grasp an object and put it to their mouth.
At four months old, the baby also learns that his or her hands belong to themselves, and they start reaching for objects. During this stage, reaching and grasping occur at the same time and that is why a child will reach for an object and close his fingers at the same time. Around the sixth or seventh month of development, the baby’s reach and grasp understanding improves and the child will try to grasp the object when it reaches a toy. This sets up the development of the Pincer grasp, which is essential to fine motor development, handwriting and pencil grip.
|When the infant’s palms are stimulated, the mouth opens and there is a flexion of the arms.||The baby starts to pick up smaller objects first with the tips of the fingers, then refines the skill with the forefinger and thumb.||When the infant’s palms are stimulated, the mouth opens and there is a flexion of the arms.|
Developing the Pincer Grasp
Until now, the baby has been using the Palmar reflex to grasp objects. Bigger objects are acceptable with this movement, but smaller objects are harder to pick up. The baby starts to practice using the Pincer grasp by trying to use only the tips of their fingers. Eventually around nine to 10 months old, the baby can pick things up by using the tips of the thumb and forefinger. Your child will continue to perfect this grasp until the end of their first year.
Around the same time, the baby will get much better at letting go and dropping items or toys. They also start to practice opening their hands up by themselves. Until now, they have only held onto items really tightly without letting go. The constant practice of picking up objects and continuous movement with their fingers helps develop the important fine motor skills that will be used for the rest of the child’s life.
What happens if the Palmar reflex is retained
As your child’s fine motor skills develop, your baby will learn how to use their hands and fingers with more and more precision. When the Palmar reflex lingers, it has a residual effect on your child’s development, especially with their fine motor skills. This is why you may notice your child can’t grasp their pencil correctly, they grip their pencil too hard, they have poor handwriting or they struggle with directionality, which causes them to write their letters backward.
The reason behind their lack of fine motor development is because they failed to transition the use of their Palmar reflex to the proper development of their Pincer grasp when they were a baby. This is why they don’t have strong fine motor skills. The lack of the Pincer grasp will continue to cause issues with fine motor skills, writing, and grips on writing instruments as they grow older.
In Attention, Balance and Coordination, written by Sally Goddard, she says, “A retained Palmar reflex will impede both manual dexterity and manipulatory activities. Handwriting will be affected as the child will be unable to form a mature pencil grip. Speech may also be affected as a continuing relationship between hand and mouth movements will prevent the development of independent muscle control at the front of the mouth. Clear articulation may be just one casualty.”
Effects of a Retained Palmar Reflex
If your child retains the Palmar reflex and doesn’t develop their Pincer grasp, you may notice the following learning delays in your child:
- Poor fine motor skills
- Lack of Pincer grasp (thumb and forefinger)
- Frustrations with correcting pencil grip
- Writing difficulties
- Often sticks out their tongue or creates movement with their mouth while trying to draw, cut with scissors, or write.
- Hypersensitivity to tactile stimulation of the palm of the hand.
- Speech problems, which is tied to the continuing relationship between the hands and the mouth (the Babkin response).
How to Test for a Retained Palmar Reflex
If you suspect your child may have a retained Palmar reflex, you can do a quick test. First, have your child touch their thumb and index finger together without touching or using any other fingers. If they can do this, have them move forward with the thumb touching the middle finger, then the ring finger and finally the pinky all independently without the use of any other fingers.
If your child can successfully complete this exercise with both the right and left hands, chances are they do not have a retained Palmar reflex. However, if your child is unable to do this exercise with each individual finger or if they can’t complete this exercise without the use of their other fingers or hands, then it is a sign that they may have retained the Palmar reflex and it could be the reason behind why they struggle with handwriting and pencil grip.
To learn more about how to integrate retained Primitive Reflexes, download the roadmap below.
Primitive Reflexes Roadmap
If you are interested in learning more about retained Primitive Reflexes and how they affect a child’s learning development, download the Primitive Reflexes Roadmap here:
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