At birth the brain structures have been formed but the brain isn't yet mature or very well linked up. As such, babies are born with a set of primitive reflexes that help them survive and respond to the sensory world during the first months of life.
Primitive reflexes are automatic, stereotyped movements that are controlled by the primitive parts of our brain. During very early development these reflexes have a vital role to play as they help the baby survive and also set the stage for later development.
For normal development to take place, they need to emerge at the right time, develop and do their job and then eventually integrate. This is achieved via movement.
In utero and over the first months of life, a babies senses are stimulated by both the movements, sounds and touch of the mother and by the in-built movement patterns released at various points by their developing brain. These movements give strong stimulation to the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile senses.
As the brain isn't yet mature enough to interpret sensory experiences and direct voluntary responses, primitive reflexes are triggered in response to sensory stimuli. These movements further stimulate and develop the sensory systems resulting in sensory integration and the linking up of the brain.
When this process happens repeatedly the primitive reflexes mature and integrate and the postural reflexes develop, giving way to voluntary controlled movement. Rolling, rocking on hands and knees and crawling are all early developmental signs that this process is happening.
When this developmental process happens successfully, a child can learn about their bodies and the environment, which forms the foundation of academic, emotional and physical success.
If the child didn't make these early movement patterns at the appropriate stage of development, the primitive reflexes aren't able to complete their job and thus fully integrate. This interfers with ongoing development and consequently sensory integration will be delayed and the central nervous system will remain somewhat immature.
Signs of retained primitive reflexes
Incomplete integration can be mild to severe. Children with mild difficulties will typically learn to compensate but it takes a tremendous amount of energy.
A child with retaind primitive reflexes will typically experience some of the following challenges:
- Sensory processing issues
- Poor postural control
- Poor balance skills
- Difficulties with attention and concentration
- Coordination difficulties
- Emotional and behavioural challenges
- Dificulties with academic demands
Children with a diagnosis of Autism, ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Sensory Processing Difficulties and Dyspraxia usually have some retained reflexes contributing to their difficulties.
Children without a diagnosis but who are struggling academically, socially, emotionally or behaviourally, are likely to show signs of retained reflexes
Below is a brief description of some of the reflexes and signs that they haven’t yet fully integrated. If your child presents with a cluster of symptoms an assessment would be beneficial:
The Fear Paralysis Reflex
- Low tolerance to stress
- Difficulty voicing their needs, desires and opinions
- Difficulties making eye contact
- Withdrawl from social situations
- Low self-esteem
- Constant feelings of overwhelm
- Extreme shyness
- Seperation anxiety
- Sleep challenges
- Tactile sensitivities
- Panic attacks
- Night terrors
- Overly clingy
- Phobias and OCD traits
- Poor adaptability
- Increased sensitivity to sound, movement, touch and visual information
- Lack of feeling secure and confident
- Food sensitivities
- Cycles of hyperactivity and fatigue
- Being easily distracted or impulsive
- Emotional immaturity, reactivity and being in a constant state of stress
- Generalised anxiety and / or fearfulness
- Dislike of change
- Withdrawn, timid or shy
- A need to be in control
- Becomming very tired after excessive stimmulation
The Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR)
- Postural and ocular motor development
- Muscle tone-either too high or too low
- Ability to hold the head up (It may bend slightly forward or lean to the side)
- Spatial planning affecting maths, arrangement of work on paper
- Visual perception difficulties
The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)
- Reading and writing difficulties
- Difficultes with spelling
- Handwriting difficulties
- Difficulty in sports
- Hand- Eye Coordination difficulties
- Difficulty completing activities that involve crossing the midline
- Difficulties with bilateral integration (integration of the 2 sides of the body)
- A tight pencil grip
- Showing a discrepancy between verbal and written expression
- Shoulder and neck problems
Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)
- Poor postural control
- Missed the crawling stage of development
- Difficulty copying from the board
- Propping up their heads when writing
- Wrapping feet around chair legs
- Preference to lie on the floor or couch
- Sitting with slumped posture
- Rubbing when reading
- Poor spatial planning skills
- Sitting in a W-position on the floor
- Difficulty learning to swim, in particular breaststroke
- Ape like walk
Palmar Grasp Reflex
- Poor dexterity using the hands
- Immature or awkward pencil Grasp
- Slumped posture
- Back pain when working at a desk, piano or computer
- Very sensitive palms
- Drops things
- Speech and articulation issues
- Speech and articulation difficulties
- Mouth movements when writing or drawing
- Difficulties with walking and running
- A tendency to toe-walk
- Poor balance
- Recurrent ankle twisting
- Lower back pain when walking / standing
Rooting and Sucking Reflexes
- Hypersensitivites to being touched on the face
- Difficulties with chewing
- Involuntary movements of the tongue or mouth when writing or drawing
- Picky eaters
Spinal Gallant Reflex
- Difficulty sitting still- “ants in their pants”
- Continued bedwetting
- Tactile sensitivities, especially to waistbands
- Difficulty with attention
- Can contribute to a scoliosis- curvature of the spine
How can I help?
Fortunately it is possible to give the brain a second chance at experiencing the early movement patterns, thus integrating the primitive reflexes and developing new brain connections, thus improving the overall efficiency of the brain. This will lead to positive changes in many areas of life, including attention skills, postural control and balance skills, coordination skills and emotional and behavioural regulation.
I offer movement based therapies including rhythmic movement therapy and sensory integration therapy.
Children are seen at my clinic for either intense blocks of therapy or seen once / month, for up to 12 months, supported by a daily home program.