Proper neurological function is a step by step, integrative process for the brain. Each step depends on the one before it for normal function to develop.
There is overlap on each stage, but it starts with primitive reflexes. These are automatic, repetitive movements that are essential for head control, muscle tone, sensory integration and development for infants. They’re essential for survival in the womb and the first few months of life. As higher cortical centers in the brain develop, the next step, integrating postural reflexes occurs. Postural reflexes allow a baby to hold their head up, sit up, stand up, and begin the locomotive process of rolling over, crawling and walking. After postural reflexes are integrated, sensory processing begins to develop.
Proper neurological development (including hitting milestones) is like a tree. Primitive and postural reflexes are roots. You cannot see a tree’s roots; you have to know how to find them (be clinically trained) if not operating correctly. After the roots are developed then the tree can start sprouting its trunk. Our trunk would be our gross motor skills and sensory processing – sight, sound, smell, touch, proprioception, and vestibular processing. After a good foundation is laid, we can sprout branches. Our branches are our fine motor skills, fine tuning visual, vocal, and hand coordination. Lastly, now that we have branches, we can now have leaves! Our leaves are what we are all concerned about as parents; good cognition, social and emotional skills, focus, concentration, regulated mood, and a happy and healthy child!
Improper development of our roots, trunk, branches and leaves can be involved in all childhood neurodevelopmental disorders and all must be addressed for profound and permanent change.
To see if retained Primitive Reflexes could be inhibiting yourself or your child, a description and list of signs and symptoms follow:
If a baby becomes startled, or is head or neck is not supported, the baby will thrust its arms out and then curl them in and brace themselves.
If retained: The child can be hypersensitive to other senses, be in chronic fight or flight which leads to adrenal gland stress hormone output and lead them to be fatigued, and or get sick often with colds, flus, ear infections, asthma, and allergies. The child will also be unable to focus, have emotional immaturity, anxious, aggressive or highly excitable and have difficulty playing at ball games.
If you stroke a baby’s face, the mouth will move towards, or the head will turn towards that side because they are looking for food.
If retained: The child could have poor articulation, messy eaters, poor tactile sensation of the face.
If someone puts a finger, or small object into a baby’s hand, it will instantly grip it.
If retained: poor handwriting, inability to hold a pencil/pen properly and poor ability to move hands in general with fine motor skills.
Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex
When a baby lays on their back and turns their head, they will raise their limbs on that side. This is the start of developing hand-eye coordinated efforts.
If retained: Contribution to scoliosis, difficulty with reading mechanics, difficulty in sports that involve moving their limbs across midline of their body and difficulty with tasks that involve both sides of the body.
Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex
To help the baby crawl, this reflex helps extend the arms and bend the knees. As the baby progresses this reflex disappears, and higher cortical areas of the brain take over the task of crawling.
If retained: Tendency to slump, sitting in a “W” position, wide posture while walking, and being clumsy.
Spinal Galant Reflex
If a baby lays on their back and their lower midback-upper low back is stroked, they will wiggle. This reflex allows the baby to “wiggle” and propel themselves out the birth canal.
If retained: Signs of poor concentration, poor posture, bed wetting beyond age 4, frigid while trying to sit still, and digestive issues.
While holding a baby in a face down horizontal position and push their head down, the rest of their body should flex and curl as well.
If retained: Poor balance, awkward movement with legs while walking or running, and inability or difficulty propelling their body to jump or skip.
Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex
If a baby lays on their back, tilting their head back more will cause their legs to straighten, stiffen and push together and the arms will bend at the elbows and wrists. This is the last of the reflexes to integrate. Most all other reflexes must be gone by the age of 12 months, this one may be present up until 3.5 years of age.
If retained beyond 3.5 years of age, it can contribute to poor posture, poor balance, motion sickness, toe walking, increased or decreased muscle tone, and poor sense of rhythm/timing.