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Primitive Reflexes: What’s behind my child’s Sensory Issues and Developmental Delays
This article contains information regarding retained primitive reflexes. 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.
It’s amazing how the body is part of the mind. There really is no way to separate the two. When a baby is born, they display various responses to external stimuli (sound, touch, light). This allows the baby to begin interacting with their environment. These responses are called primitive reflexes, which are automatic. In fact, these vital reflexes assist with the birthing process, help the newborn adjust to life outside the womb and help build the foundation for motor and cognitive skills. In a typical child, most of these reflexes will integrate or transition to mature responses within the first year or so. This occurs when the central nervous system develops.
When high level processing starts to take over, the child will no longer demonstrate the reflex pattern. However, if your child has an immature central nervous system it could mean an issue that results from a primitive reflex that holds on and doesn’t integrate. As this article reviews, these reflexes are modified into more mature, complex responses. As the child develops, the reflexes turn into more of a voluntary movement. There are many theories as to why a child may retain a primitive reflex.
A study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics looked at babies who were classified as very low birth weight infants (less than 3.31 lbs) and assessed them in later months for retained primitive reflexes. To provide a comparison, infants with normal weight were also tested. The low birth weight infants showed stronger retained reflexes and a higher incidence of delayed motor development compared to normal term infants.
Reasons Behind Retained Primitive Reflexes
There are many reasons why a child retains primitive reflexes. Some of those reasons are unexplained, however, there are a few factors or events in a child’s life that may point to the cause behind them. That is why we ask about the birth and medical history of each student to determine where the gaps began. Your child may retain primitive reflexes for some of the following reasons:
- Low birth weight at birth
- Prolonged or premature birth
- Traumatic birth, suction, forceps, emergency C-section
- Severe illness, trauma or injury in infancy
- Lack of tummy time
- Decreased ability to explore environment in early months
- Too much time in bouncer, stroller, or car seat which restricts (if overused) developing motor patterns and pathways.
- Missing crawling stage
The idea of a child retaining a reflex if there was a traumatic birth or an emergency C-section is logical as many of the reflexes are stimulated by passing through the birth canal. This is not to say that all children who are born by C-section will have issues with retained primitive reflexes, however, it is one possible factor that may cause retained primitive reflexes and could be why your child has developmental delays or even learning challenges in the classroom.
Other possible reasons for primitive reflexes not integrating could include limiting the baby’s ability to explore their environment. This happens with excessive use of the bouncer, baby seats, car seats, strollers or not allowing the infant time on the floor. The reasoning behind this theory is based on the need for children to explore their environment for sensory integration, which improves your child’s motor skills and allows them to develop higher-level cognitive skills that build the central nervous system and lead to mature skills that are governed in the cortex of the brain.
In What’s Going On In There, by Lise Eliot, she says, “In newborns, brain activity is largely confined to subcortical structures such as the brain stem, part of the cerebellum and the thalamus. These structures are responsible for the characteristic reflexes of newborns – their rooting, grasping, sucking, stepping, and start responses – all of which disappear when the cortex develops further and comes to actively override them.”
Most Common Retained Reflexes
Any one of the primitive reflexes can be retained, however, there are a few that are more commonly found in children. The three most notable reflexes that are frequently seen in later childhood are the Moro reflex (affects sensory issues), Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) (child can’t cross the midline) and the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR) (poor posture, W-sitting and developmental delays).
In a study, released in 2004, the researchers looked at signs and symptoms in boys who were diagnosed with ADHD and those who showed no signs of ADHD. The results indicated that in general the boys who showed signs of ADHD showed higher levels of retained primitive reflexes than the boys who had no signs of ADHD. The reflexes that were found and looked at in this research were the Moro, ATNR, STNR and Tonic Labyrinthe Reflex (TLR). Another similar study looked at children ages eight to 11 who were in two different groups, one group of children shows signs of ADHD and the other group did not show signs of ADHD. Results of this study were similar to the previously mentioned research. Children with ADHD showed a higher occurrence of retained primitive reflexes than the control group. The two reflexes that were tested for in this study were the Moro reflex and the Spinal Galant reflex.
Throughout a child’s life, if a retained reflex is present, a child will strive to compensate for the reflex that is still “turned on.” This takes tremendous amount of energy. It can cause undue stress for that child, and when one is under stress, the child simply runs out of energy for higher level activities such as learning, playing and emotional growth.
How to integrate retained Primitive Reflexes
If you have tested your child or student for retained primitive reflexes and they display signs of some of the ones listed above then your child may continue to show signs of toe walking, W-sitting, 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.
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!
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