What are reflexes and how do they work?
There are many genetically programmed circuits running between our bodies and brains which are needed for protection, survival, growth, and development. These circuits are called Primitive (or Primary) Reflexes. These set the stage for moving our bodies, communication, and learning new things. These reflex circuits start developing and working in utero or before you are born, some as early as 11-13 weeks, when you are about 2-4 inches long, and most mature in the first year of life to lay the building blocks for later learning. They continue to work throughout your life to support learning, protection and survival.
Early reflex circuits are triggered by sensations which cause a movement or action response. Many of the early reflexes start working in the womb. They are unconscious programs – you don’t think about what or how to do something, it just happens automatically. Although you may not have a name for them, you have seen them in babies. The “Startle” response to a loud noise or quick movement, tiny fingers wrapping around your finger when you touch their palm, when you touch the side of the baby’s mouth they move to the nipple, yawning, crying when hungry or when the diaper needs changing, sucking and swallowing, turning their head to look to look in the direction of the sound of mother’s voice. These are all examples of the early “survival” and “protection” reflexes.
A child must practice using a primitive reflex long enough to set the program for it in the brain, so it supports the next level of complexity of a skill, or so they can learn to do something new, and that takes time and practice, practice, practice.
What do reflexes do?
The early reflexes working in the first year set the stage for things like eye-hand coordination, rocking, rolling, crawling, walking and talking. They also set the stage for cognitive development or learning new skills, behavior, social and emotional development. When the early reflexes are working well learning and moving is a No-Brainer, and EASY. As a child grows they are ready for more complex movements and ways of thinking.
What can knock them out and how do you know if the reflexes are not working?
Sensory-motor Reflex circuits can become inefficient or not function well due to congenital disorders; disease; birth, physical or emotional trauma; and prolonged intermittent or chronic stress*. If a child does not master a primitive reflex in that first year, it can set them up for later difficulties or challenges with learning, play and interactions with others. After they have developed, a child can revert back to a previous reflex pattern when under extreme emotional stress, due to illness or an injury from an accident. A picky eater with a diet with poor nutrients or with a focus on carbohydrates, sugar or milk will have delayed skill development because these things affect efficiency of messages sent between the body and the brain. As technology has come into our world, children are spending more time sitting and looking at screens, and less time using their bodies in play practicing using their reflexes.
OTs working with school aged children who have learning and motor coordination problems are looking at poor development of the primary reflexes as one of the reasons there are more children with diagnoses of ADHD, emotional and behavior issues, sensory issues, allergies, respiratory ie. asthma, and other learning and coordination problems. Some of these can be traced back to children not getting enough “tummy time”**, a developmental stage needed to develop reflexes that lay the foundation for efficient breathing, movement, learning, and communication.
If my child has learning, behavior or health issues, what can I do?
You can bring your child to Carolyn at Sound Therapeutics. She can use her tools to find out “why” your child is having these issues, and she has therapies to support learning, moving, health and interacting with others. Call her today for a free consult and get the help your child needs to support their growth and development.
*(Svetlana Masgutoa, Ph.D Parent’s Guide to MNRI)
**OTs are expressing concern about one of the major effects of the combination of recommendations for preventing SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, and the overuse of seating and positioning systems. This is resulting in babies not getting enough “tummy time” to develop their motor and respiratory systems due to fear of SIDS. There are reflex circuits which are developed during “tummy time” that support the foundation for later development of motor, attention and cognitive skills.