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Newborn Reflexes: 8 Built-in Survival Mechanisms

Although a newborn can seem incredibly vulnerable and completely needy, at this early stage a baby is actually equipped with a number of natural reflexes that help to protect them from harm. Stay with Flo to learn all about this fascinating topic!

What are newborn baby reflexes? 

A reflex is defined as an automatic response to a stimulus that occurs without the active participation of the subject. Consider your natural reaction when you accidentally put your hand into scalding water — you reflexively withdraw your hand to protect yourself from harm without the delay of rational, considered thought. This is an example of a reflex.

As should be clear, the benefit of these reflexes is that they allow an automatic and swift response to a stimulus, protecting us from many different types of harm. And these reflexes aren’t only active in fully-developed adults — even newborn babies have a range of reflexes that protect them from potential harm in their immediate environment.

So what reflexes are observed in newborns, and how do they protect babies from potential harm? Read on.

Types of common newborn reflexes 

1. Rooting reflex 

The rooting reflex is a straightforward one. In response to having its cheek stroked from the mouth to the earlobe, a newborn baby will turn toward the stimulus and make a sucking motion with its mouth open. As you can probably guess, this reflex is important in allowing a newborn to successfully latch on to its mother’s breast for feeding.

For obvious reasons, the reflex is present from birth and becomes less prominent when the baby is 3 to 4 months old. In some babies, it may still be seen during sleep!

2. Sucking reflex 

Like the rooting reflex, the sucking reflex helps a baby to seek food. It causes an automatic sucking when the nipple of a breast or bottle, or even a finger, stimulates the lips. This reflex appears at birth and becomes voluntary at 3 months.

3. Moro reflex

The Moro reflex is one that is present from birth and provides the newborn with protection from harm in the outside environment. If a baby in a supine position is rapidly lowered by about 4–8 inches, they will tense their body, open their arms wide, and unclench their fists — they’ll then draw their knees into their chest and bring their arms back into their body with their fists clenched again.

If you’re watching all of this from the sidelines, it will almost look like your baby is giving him or herself a hug! But this reflex is short-lived and will pass within a few seconds. Although present from birth, this reflex will lessen in frequency as your baby becomes more settled in their new environment. By 5–6 months, it should have disappeared entirely.

4. Grasping or palmar grasp reflex 

This simple reflex is triggered by pressing a finger or other object into the palm of a newborn’s hand. They’ll respond by making a fist and gripping strongly. The grasping, or palmar, reflex appears at birth and can last up to 2–3 months. It prepares the infant for grasping actions.

5. Babinski’s or plantar reflex 

This reflex is observed when the sole of the foot is gently stroked from heel to toes. You’ll note your baby’s toes spreading out and the big toe moving upwards. The Babinski response is present at birth and usually disappears by the time an infant is 4 months old.

6. Walking or stepping reflex 

The walking reflex is triggered by holding the baby upright with their feet in contact with the surface underneath. They’ll respond by lifting one foot after the other, almost as if walking. This response appears at birth and lasts until the infant is around 2 months old — and it provides early preparation for walking in the months to come.

7. Tonic neck reflex

When a baby is lying on their back and then you turn their head to one side, the arm on the side to which the chin is turned will extend while the opposite arm will bend at the elbow (this is sometimes called the fencing posture).

This reflex isn’t present from birth — it appears sometime between birth and 2 months of age. It usually disappears between 6 and 7 months, although this varies from baby to baby. It may help to prepare an infant for reaching.

8. Galant reflex 

The Galant reflex, also called truncal incurvation, is tested by holding the baby face down in one hand and stroking the skin on either side of the spine with the other hand. You should see the baby’s spine curving in response — the head, feet, and pelvis should move towards the side being stroked. This reflex is present at birth and disappears between 2 and 6 months of age.

When to seek medical attention

You can stimulate most of these reflexes at home, but try not to be alarmed if you don’t observe them in action — your technique may not be perfect, or your baby may simply not be in the mood!

But if you don’t notice the described response after several attempts on different days, then consult your pediatrician or family doctor for advice. You should also seek a medical opinion if a reflex reappears after having disappeared.


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