What are primitive reflexes?

Primitive reflexes begin in utero; they are repetitive, involuntary or automatic movements in response to stimuli that are essential for the development of head control, muscle tone, sensory integration and overall development.

They protect a developing fetus, aid the birthing process and contribute to later, more mature postural reflexes.  As the baby grows, ideally these primitive reflexes will “integrate” into the growing brain.  They will no longer be active as the practice of these movements do their intended job and movements become more controlled and voluntary.

Movement is critical to integrating primitive reflexes.  The integration of primitive reflexes allows us to move through our spatial world as we develop through early childhood stages of life.  Holding our head up for the first time, rolling over, crawling and creeping, walking, skipping – all of these require the basic building blocks that began with primitive reflexes.

From gross motor to fine motor (handwriting, tying shoes) to ocular motor (eye movements), each stage of development is affected by the timely integration of primitive reflexes.

What causes primitive reflexes to be retained?

There are many reasons which may contribute to primitive reflexes remaining “active”, or retained.

Retained primitive reflexes may be the result of:

Stress of the mother and/or baby during pregnancy (birth trauma, breech birth, Cesarean birth, induced birth)

Lack of movement in utero (due to low amniotic fluid, for example)

When infants spend extended time in car seats/carriers, jumpers, walkers, which restrict movements that are required for healthy brain development.

Illness, trauma, injury, chronic stress

Other developmental delays

Both children and adults can experience symptoms from retained reflexes.  Reflexes that are integrated may become reactivated later by injury, trauma, illness or stress.

How do we work with retained primitive reflexes?

In the vast majority of cases, retained primitive reflexes can be helped to integrate through the use of very simple exercises done at home, for a few minutes per day.  While this approach will not be successful every time, the majority of the time it will work and, if it is going to help, most retained reflexes will integrate over a 30 day period, and allow the associated symptoms to resolve.