Your baby’s reflexes explained

Your baby is born with a whole set of skills to help ensure his survival. We take a look at the wonderful world of reflexes.

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  • Your baby's reflexes explained

    We’ve all seen what happens when your doctor taps your knee with a hammer – that comedic swing of the leg is just one of our many reflexes, as is coughing and the instinct to remove our hand from a hot surface.

    Reflexes are an involuntary response that protect us from danger, and babies are born with a whole set of them. Here’s our guide to the marvellous feats you will see performed by your infant.

  • Moro/startle reflex

    What does your baby do?

    This is the one you’re likely to see your baby do most frequently, especially if you a noisy toddler around, too! On hearing a loud noise, such as a door slamming or a dog barking, your baby will extend his limbs, open his fingers and arch his back, rapidly followed by clenching the fists and pulling his arms to his chest. He may also cry. You’ll get the same reaction if you don’t support his neck, as it is also triggered by a sense of falling. Don’t worry if he doesn’t do it all the time, but do tell your GP or health visitor if he never startles, or if the movement appears asymmetrical – if one arm moves but not the other – as these could indicate neurological problems. This reflex is named after German paediatrician Ernst Moro.

    Why does he do it?

    It is thought to be in the hope of grabbing something and preventing a fall; crying is to get your attention and alert you to the potential danger.

    When will it disappear?

    2 to 4 months

  • Palmar grasp

    What does your baby do?

    This is always a popular one to test: touch the palm of your baby’s hand and his fingers will curl and grip your finger, so you can use it to tell older siblings that their baby brother or sister is ‘holding their hand’. The grip is very strong, and you may be able to pull your baby up a little, but be aware that he has no control and could let go at any time and fall backwards. Equally, if you get him to hold on to a rattle, when he lets go, it could land on him. You can also get him to curl his toes (very cute!) by lightly touching the soles of his feet. Also known as Darwinian reflex or tonic grasp reflex.

    Why does he do it?

    There’s no known reason, and there are no obvious survival benefits.

    When will it disappear?

    About 6 months

  • Plantar grasp/Babinski reflex

    What does your baby do?

    In contrast with the Palmar grasp, if you stroke your baby’s foot firmly from heel to toe, you’ll see his toes spread open and foot turn inward slightly. Named after French neurologist Joseph Babinski, if this reaction is seen in older children or adults, it can indicate a neurological problem.

    Why does he do it?

    It is thought that this could be to help prevent falling when being carried by his mother – it is often seen in young baboons for whom feet and toes are important for tree climbing.

    When will it disappear?

    1 to 2 years

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  • Sucking

    What does your baby do?

    It may seem strange to think of this as a reflex, but in newborns that’s exactly what sucking is. The trick is to ensure that whatever you actually want him to suck is far enough back and in contact with the roof of his mouth. This is one reason why you’re told to get as much of the nipple’s areola into your baby’s mouth as possible when you start breastfeeding. Not getting the nipple in the right place is a common cause of feeding problems. Because it’s reflexive, your baby will suck pretty much anything that goes into his mouth – breast, bottle, your finger, a dummy, his thumb – so do be careful there’s nothing inappropriate he can get to.

    Why does he do it?

    Searching for food, survival primarily. However, the fact that he’s sucking doesn’t necessarily mean he’s hungry – it’s a comforting thing to do for its own sake. This reflex doesn’t start until week 32 of pregnancy and isn’t fully developed until 36 weeks, so some premature babies may have problems feeding at first.

    When will it disappear?

    By 2 months of age, sucking ceases to be reflexive and becomes a conscious action.

  • Rooting

    What does your baby do?

    Stroke your baby’s cheek and see what happens. She will turn to you looking for food – even though she may not be hungry. It’s particularly useful to know about this one when starting breastfeeding as your baby can help get himself in the right position. However, if your baby tends to wave his arms about during feeds, accidentally touching his cheek, he may inadvertently detach himself from the breast and end up frustrated! In this case, wrapping a blanket around his arms may help.

    Why does he do it?

    Again, survival and the search for food.

    When will it disappear?

    By about 4 months, but it can last up to a year, especially during sleep.

  • Stepping/dance/walking reflex

    What does your baby do?

    Yes, you too can beam with pride as you watch your baby ‘walk’! Hold him securely under the arms, let his feet touch a flat surface, and hey presto, he’s off. Of course, it’s not real walking, and his proficiency at this is no indication of whether he’ll be an early or late walker. Do make sure you support your baby’s head when trying it out.

    Why does he do it?

    It’s thought to be a preparation for real walking although the reflex will be long gone by the time this happens.

    When will it disappear?

    By 2 to 4 months

  • Swimming/Dive reflex

    What does your baby do?

    When placed under water on his tummy, your baby will hold his breath, close his throat so he doesn’t swallow any water and move his arms and legs without any conscious effort.

    Why does he do it?

    The reason is not known, but it’s particularly helpful if you’re planning a water birth and is the reason many people believe in early swim training for infants. Don’t try it at home though.

    When will it disappear?

    About 6 months

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  • Crawling

    What does your baby do?

    He can’t actually crawl from birth, but if you put your baby on his front, he will pull his legs up and stick his bottom in the air as if he’s about to do so (if only the rest of his body were strong enough).

    Why does he do it?

    Just getting some practice…

    When will it disappear?

    About 2 months

Last updated on 5 August 2009

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