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Plantar Reflex: Reasons why my Child may be a Toe Walker and has Poor Balance and Coordination
This article contains information regarding a retained Plantar reflex and retained Babinski reflex. 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.
Imagine for a moment what it would be like to find discomfort or even pain every time your feet hit the floor. The pressure you apply with each step creates instant discomfort and instability as you walk down stairs, run across the room or climb a hill. You may feel a little like a clown with shoes that are too big for your feet as you stumble, trip, lose your balance or even fall. Or, you may feel like playing hot potato with every step you take. You avoid putting any kind of pressure on the ground with your feet to relieve your heels, toes and balls of your feet from any discomfort. Even though your brain tells your feet to walk normal like those around you, your feet just won’t cooperate.
Now picture a child trying to master their walking gait as they play on the playground or participate in gym class with the same issues. A child who finds it uncomfortable to put their feet on the ground, struggles with balance when standing upright, or walks awkwardly (perhaps on their toes) may be dealing with the effects of retained primitive reflexes.
Because every child is born with primitive reflexes, and they are completely natural for your child’s growth up until a certain point in their development, it can be difficult to know when your child retains a reflex that should have “gone to sleep” when they are fully developed and it’s also hard to know the difference between each of them. Many times a primitive reflex is intertwined with another reflex, especially in the first year of life. For example, the relationship between the Plantar reflex and the Babinski reflex begins when a child enters the world.
Each reflex is present at birth and both respond to the pressure and stimulus on the foot. If your child has retained either of these reflexes or both, it could be the reason behind toe walking or why they appear to be clumsy, unbalanced and uncoordinated.
Before we can determine if your child has retained either the Plantar reflex or the Babinski reflex, it’s important to know what each is responsible for and how it may impact your child’s learning as they get older.
What is the Plantar Reflex
The Plantar reflex is similar to the Palmar reflex. Just as the hand (Palmar) opens when we stroke the back side of a baby’s palm, the foot flexes or curls when we stroke or press on the ball of the baby’s foot (Plantar). The Plantar reflex emerges around 11 weeks in utero (in the womb), it is present at birth, and usually “goes to sleep” or lies dormant around the baby’s first birthday.
When your child is a baby, you may notice the Plantar reflex causing spontaneous exercising of the toes and feet. For example, if a baby is sitting in a stroller or chair, the baby may flex their toes without anyone touching or putting pressure on their feet. This continuous exercise is thought to help with the development of motor pathways and connections in your child’s brain, which eventually is used for motor planning and how your child learns in school. (Goddard, 2009)
What is the Babinski Reflex
The Babinski reflex is also present at birth and starts to fade when the child turns one year old. The Babinski reflex is seen when you stroke the outside sole of your baby’s foot from the toes all the way down to the heel of their foot. Your baby’s big toe will overextend upward while the other toes fan outward. The Babinski reflex is thought of as the sister reflex to the Plantar reflex. They both initiate exercising of the baby’s feet and they create neural development in the brain. This reflex also assists your baby in commando crawling (pushing the toes into the floor to push off for forward movement).
What’s interesting about the Babinski reflex is that it determines the adequacy of the central nervous system. The central nervous system is also tied to your child’s sensory, vestibular, proprioceptive and visual systems. If the Babinski reflex is retained, this could be the reason why your child has issues with all these systems and shows signs of poor balance, coordination, tracking, hand-eye coordination, sensory sensitivities and other issues in the classroom.
What does the Plantar Reflex and Babinski have to do with balance?
We are born with these unconscious responses to our environment that are imperative in an infant. However, we don’t want primitive reflexes to linger into older childhood years later. Having a retained Plantar reflex can inhibit the child’s ability to interact with their environment and build that sensory hierarchy that is crucial for learning. When working with these two specific reflexes, the Plantar and the Babinski, both can affect balance and how a child walks. There is a nerve path that starts in our feet and goes all the way up to our cortex and back down our body.
To understand why these reflexes are needed, and what happens if retained when a child is older, let’s review what Goddard describes in Attention, Balance and Coordination. She says, “The extension of the toes in the Babinski reflex occurs because of immaturity in the corticospinal tract. The corticospinal tract fibers mature in a very structured sequence starting with the head first, the arm, followed by the upper body and then the legs. Because this maturing process takes longer to develop in the feet, the Babinski reflex gradually gives way to the Plantar grasp reflex, and the toes flex with pressure applied to the foot. The Plantar reflex is present before this, but it manifests more often. If these reflexes continue into older childhood, the pressures that are constantly being applied to the feet when performing movements such as running, walking and climbing will be affected and can create immense discomfort for the child. This may result in altering foot position and placement on surfaces.”
If your child has retained the Plantar or Babinski reflexes, here are a few signs you may notice in your child:
- Toe walking
- Issues with proprioceptive and vestibular system
- Muscles in the back of the legs are affected, altering gait
- Trouble with balancing
- Gravitational Insecurity (not being confident with their sense of stability)
- Trouble with vestibular, visual and sensory systems
How to test for a retained Plantar Reflex
To test your child for a retained Plantar reflex, you will need a pen or marker. Have your child sit down in a chair. On the sole of their foot, pretend to draw a line from their toes to the heel of their foot with the marker. If your child’s toes scrunch up this could mean they have retained the Plantar reflex.
How to test for a retained Babinski Reflex
To test your child for a retained Babinski reflex, use the same pen or marker. Take your child’s foot again and draw another pretend line along the outer part of their foot, starting from the ball and working your way toward the toes. When you reach the bottom of their toes, draw an imaginary line with your marker across from the pinky toe to the big toe (making an upside down “L” shape from the ball of your child’s foot then across the base of their toes). If your child’s big toe extends upward and the rest of the toes fan out, this could mean they have retained the Babinski reflex.
How to integrate the Palmar Reflex
If you have tested your child or student for a retained Plantar or Babinski primitive reflex and are sure they have retained it, then your child may continue to show signs of toe walking, poor balance and coordination, and underdeveloped vestibular and proprioception systems.
To help you with these exercises, the Retained Primitive Reflexes 101 e-Course provides videos, instructions and pictures that may help integrate the reflexes. The e-Course is only offered two times a year so join now to save your spot!
As you monitor your child’s development, if you notice your child has issues with their sensory, auditory, vestibular, or visual systems, which prevent them from fully developing, they may need these exercises to help their learning behavior, attention and focus, and fidgeting in the classroom. You may also continue to notice delays in your child’s learning or side effects that can cause toe walking, bedwetting, poor balance and coordination, underdeveloped vestibular and proprioceptive systems, and trouble with motor planning. If your child struggles with any number of these issues, it could be an indication that the nervous system is underdeveloped.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs