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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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When will it disappear?

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

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