“The Well Balanced Child”–Chapter Four: Reflexes and the Developing Mind

“From Cradle to Coordination:  Reflexes and the Developing Mind” is the full title of this chapter, and it is an interesting look at how reflexes help the body do things and therefore free up other areas of the brain for thought and action on a more complex level.

This chapter goes through eight different reflexes, what they are, and perhaps more importantly to those whose children have challenges, what these reflexes look like when they are retained and not integrated well:  how this affects motor and emotional development. This post will cover the first part of this chapter, and tomorrow’s post will cover the second part.

This is a brief listing of some things I thought were really pertinent or thought-provoking about this chapter; for more you will really need to get the book and read it as this chapter was fairly lengthy!

The first four reflexes:

1.  The Moro Reflex – the first primitive reflex to emerge; described as when an infant faces “any sudden unexpected event, particularly the loss of head support.  If the baby’s head is lowered rapidly below the level of the spine, the arms and legs will open out from the characteristic flexed posture of the new-born, there will be a rapid intake of breath, and the baby will “freeze” in that position for a fraction of a second, before the arms and legs return across the body, usually accompanied by a cry of protest.”

Yes, any therapist worth their salt knows this is the LAST reflex to test as many babies fall apart after this…at the same time, it can be a useful reflex to stimulate the first breath as a “second fail-safe mechanism.”  That is a way to test this reflex, but one can also see this reflex with other types of stimulation such as a sudden loud noise, sudden change of temperature or pain, etc.

If someone walks up behind you and slams a heavy book on the table, it will undoubtedly startle you, but you will seek out the sound after you are startled.  By four months of age, we hope that the infant will also startle and seek out the noise and stimuli and respond to it, but not lose postural control.  A very strong retained Moro reflex is often seen in children with cerebral palsy, but different degrees of this reflex can persist even with no “listed diagnosis”.  The author gives a long list of symptoms associated with a residual Moro Reflex on pages 32-33; hypersensitivity, poor balance and coordination, visual difficulties, insecurity, anxiety, fearfulness, poor adaptability, good verbal ability but poor social skills and peer relationships and dislike of change are some noted.

2. The Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex – this helps move the position of the head forward or backward.  If the body extends, the head extends, and if the body flexes, the head flexes.  In the first few weeks of life this is the only way the baby has in order to respond to gravity due to a lack of developed head control.  By six weeks of age, a baby has the ability to hold its head up in line with the spine in a prone (tummy down) position and as development continues with muscular control from the head to the feet, this reflex is slowly integrated over the next three to three and a half years.  All beginnings of upright balance start when an infant lies on its stomach and gains muscular control; this also develops the mechanism of the inner ear for balance.  Symptoms of a retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex are listed on page 40; some of these include poor balance, walking on toes after age three and a half, visual-perceptual problems, vertigo.

3.  The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex – when the infant turns the head to one side, the arm and leg extend in the same direction of the head turning and the opposite limbs flex.  This reflex may help in the birth process itself, and may also assist in early reaching.  Once this reflex is inhibited, an infant can start to bring hands together to the midline and eye movements can move independently of the head movement.

We often see this reflex chosen as a very specific movement in sports ( track athletes, ballet dancers), but as the author points out a specific and voluntary choosing is much different than having no voluntary control over this reflex.  If this reflex is not inhibited, it can interfere with the development of cross-pattern movements, crawling on the stomach, and choosing a dominant lateral side by eight years of age, along with impeding development of visual tracking.

4.  The Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex – the causes the upper and lower sections of the body to have opposite movements:  when the infant’s head goes down, the arms bend and the legs straighten, and if the infant puts its head up, the arms straighten, the legs bend and the infant’s bottom sinks.  The infant overcomes this by rocking on hands and knees and then developing into a creeping on hands and knees pattern.  Remnants of this reflex are often seen in children who have learning disabilities…From page 50, “Marie Bender then developed a series of physical exercises that involved creeping against an opposing force.  She found that the exercises had an inhibitory effect on the STNR, and that as the STNR was controlled, many of the children’s learning difficulties also started to disappear.”   The effects of having this reflex retained include poor upper and lower body integration, poor posture when sitting or standing, poor vertical tracking, poor hand-eye coordination when movements toward and away from the body are needed.

Whew!  Lots to digest here!

Many blessings,


5 thoughts on ““The Well Balanced Child”–Chapter Four: Reflexes and the Developing Mind

  1. This is where the book became interesting to me. My daughter had the moro reflex for quite some time (although not sure how long). It was just something we really noticed her doing (it was cute) but at the time did not know it meant anything. We then noticed her younger sister rarely had it when at the same age so with the comparison it appears she had a residual case. She had a weak sucking reflex and struggled with nursing – it was a nightmare – changed who I am – worth every minute though. She also has low muscle tone -very floppy. I wish we would have know about someone with your expertise when she was a baby.
    Now at age four I look at that list of challenges associated with a residual Moro Reflex and she has every one of them. Each one affects her life. She is in OT and speech therapy. Not many would guess this though. She is a happy, bright little girl and could easily slip through the cracks. I can’t let that happen and I am trying everything I can do to help her. The thing that concerns me right now is her social skills. She wants to play with kids so much but something just doesn’t work out. She tries and always approached kids at the playground but I think she might be using the wrong tools in her tool box. Her staring (or just taking everything in – she is observant but it’s really staring in the social world). The author put her social challenges in the perfect words (in the list of residual moro reflex challenges – I don’t have my book on had to quote it). I thought – finally – this is what’s going on with her! It can be so hard for me to watch someone who means so well just not fit in. This is where I have struggled with the idea that young ones do not need play dates. Is this more hard for her because she doesn’t have a lot of practice? This is why I feel like she needs school and she has started preschool for two mornings a week. I have read a lot of books (thanks for this reference) and I hope I am doing all I can. I think I just need to let things come as they will. I am getting more confident with the idea that her anxiety will lessen as her body becomes stronger and she is more aware of her body. Maybe this will help with her social skills as well. We are slowly integrating the stories at the back of this book into our routine. I love the combination of story and actions.
    Thanks again for talking about this topic!

    • Stacy,
      Thank you so much for sharing your story, I am sorry your little girl is going through this and it sounds like you are doing everything within your means possible in order to help her. I think in the case of your daughter, play dates at home or at a park with one or two friends in a controlled way would be beneficial. How old is she now? And I do believe that as her body awareness and sensory modulation changes with real, physical, hard work and therapy, you will see her social skills change. I have seen this many times, but never truly recognized it for what it was until the course I took recently about sensory modulation which I will be blogging about soon.
      Please do let us know how she is doing soon!
      Many blessings,

  2. My little one is nearly three,she still enjoys rocking herself to sleep on all fours, especially when she is very tired. Do you think this is a problem? or indicates something I need to watch for? I’d love your thoughts.

    • Sherianne -It is by Sally Goddard Blythe. Every chapter of this book is reviewed and studied if you look under the tab that says “Book Study”

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