As a new mum, you might wonder: What is newborn reflexes exactly? And what is their purpose? What do newborn reflexes look like?
Part of being a new parent is in your baby’s first few days, you will be doing a lot of staring and obsessing over the things that he does. From watching him closely while he is sleeping to see if he’s breathing (you’re not alone, mum) to wondering why she gets startled so easily, and being amused as to how they learn to grasp your finger when you place it near them.
Well, you won’t be left wondering any longer for we’ve made the ultimate guide to newborn reflexes and all the types you need to know about. Be better informed about these reflexes your little tot makes and what they could possibly mean.
What are Newborn Reflexes
According to Healthline, a reflex is a response to a stimulus that occurs without conscious thought. Examples of common reflexes in adults include pulling your hand away from a hot stove and jerking your lower leg when the area below your kneecap is tapped. It’s something that we automatically do without even thinking about it.
Neonatal Reflexes Test
Babies are also born with a unique set of reflexes that can tell a doctor about their health and development. Within the first minutes after birth, nurses and doctors assess these reflexes. The absence of some of these reflexes may probe your health practitioner to observe the baby more closely for some congenital disorders or irregularities.
Some of these reflexes stay with your baby for a couple of months, while some can be outgrown within weeks. Here are some of the common newborn reflexes new parents must watch out for:
11 Newborn Reflexes You Must Know About
1. Rooting Reflex
You touch your newborn’s cheek and he turns towards the direction he is being touched with his mouth open, ready to take on your breasts or a bottle. His rooting reflex helps your baby to latch and breastfeed or take his bottle to begin feeding.
According to Healthline, the rooting reflex usually develops in utero around 28 to 30 weeks (which explains why some premature babies don’t have this newborn reflex) and can remain until the baby is about 4 months. However, at 3 weeks, most newborns can turn their heads naturally and move their heads into positions to start sucking.
While they go hand in hand, the rooting reflex is different from the sucking reflex. The rooting reflex happens first, to allow your infant to reflexively find your breast or a bottle nipple. When a baby has accomplished this, that’s when the next important newborn reflex kicks in.
2. Sucking Reflex
As mentioned earlier, rooting actually cues the baby to suck. You can trigger your newborn’s sucking by gently touching the roof of his mouth with a finger, nipple, and even with a bottle.
If you had an ultrasound during the third trimester, you may have seen your little one sucking her thumb inside the womb. According to Healthy Children.org, a publication by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), sucking is another survival reflex that is present even before birth.
However, this reflex will only fully develop at about 36 weeks. So if you are a mum with a premature baby and are unsure what newborn reflexes are, you may wonder why your little one has weak sucking abilities. Not to worry — the sucking reflex will develop as your baby catches up to that 36-week mark.
Babies also have a hand-to-mouth reflex that goes with rooting and sucking. They may suck on their fingers or hands. Again this can be confused with hunger, but many babies like to “comfort suck” as well as to self-soothe.
Like the rooting reflex, the sucking reflex will disappear at about 4 months. By that time, your baby is already an expert at sucking and breastfeeding or drinking from her bottle.
3. Moro Reflex (aka Startle Reflex)
When startled by a sudden movement or loud noise, your newborn will throw his head back, with arms and legs extended, and might start crying. After that, he will retract his arms and legs into a hugging position as if to protect himself. This is called the startle reflex or Moro reflex.
According to Medical News Today, several things can trigger the startle reflex such as loud noises, intense light, and sudden movements. Your infant can even trigger it in himself when he moves suddenly. It can also be triggered when you pick up your baby or put him down in his crib. It’s because it creates a sensation of falling for your little one.
New parents can minimise this by swaddling their newborns. Swaddling not only helps prevent babies from waking themselves up but also helps them to feel more secure.
When does the startle reflex go away, and what happens if the Moro reflex disappears? This may sound superficial, but it’s actually a valid question among parents.
This newborn reflex can be noticeable in varying degrees among infants but goes away by the 2nd month. However, an absence of this reflex during the baby’s first month or if it only occurs on one side of the body warrants a visit to his paediatrician, as it can indicate an infection or neurological disorder.
4. Gag Reflex
While the term “gag reflex” actually refers to a baby’s reflex to push out food to prevent choking when he starts eating solids, parents notice that their newborns also know how to gag as they learn to latch properly on their bottle or mom’s breasts.
It happens when your newborn suddenly swallows way too much milk. This could happen during a really strong letdown or if you are overproducing breastmilk.
Your newborn’s first instinct is to close off his throat, and this, in turn, causes his tongue to expel the excess milk out of his mouth. You might be thinking, “Oh no, is he alright? Did I choke him?” But there’s usually no cause for worry. Just hold your baby upright or into a sitting position and rub his back as if you were burping him and he should be alright.
5. Crawling Reflex
During tummy time and when your newborn is on his stomach, he will usually draw his knees up under his tummy in a fetal position. It might look like he is attempting to crawl but in a really cute way.
You may be amazed that when your newborn is placed on your stomach, he can actually crawl up to your breasts to breastfeed. This is called the crawling reflex.
This reflex will disappear after 2 months, then show up again toward the end of the first year as the learned behaviour of walking. By this time, it will be called the stepping reflex, also known as the dancing reflex because your little one might look like he’s trying to moonwalk when you hold them upright, with their feet on a flat surface.
6. Babinski’s Reflex
When you gently graze a finger from your heel to your toe, you will notice that your reflex will be for your toes to curl in. Nothing special? Well, did you know that it wasn’t always the case?
If you try stroking the soles of your newborn’s feet firmly from heel to toe, you will notice his feet responding. His big toe will bend back while other toes fan out. Parents will see this reflex up to about two years of age. This reflex helps to prevent falling when your baby is ready to take his first few steps.
7. Walking (or Step) Reflex
This is also known as the dancing reflex because your little one might look like he’s trying to moonwalk when you hold them upright, with their feet on a flat surface.
If you apply some pressure to his feet, you will see him attempting to push forward with the help of your hand. So never leave your baby unattended on the bed or on something high like a changing table. Small as he may be, he can still be pretty mobile even though he hasn’t started to flip or crawl properly yet.
8. Grasp Reflex/Palmar Grasp
Everybody loves this reflex! The grasp reflex is when your baby’s hand closes around your finger every time you press or touch the palm of his hand. Of course the same will happen if say, using an object instead of your finger. But why do that when a tiny hand wrapped around your fingers will give you “the feels!”
For new mums who are not familiar with, or know what are newborn reflexes, you might see your doctor test this reflex by holding both of your baby’s wrists and lifting him forward into a sitting position.
Incidentally, you might see some of the older generations do this as an exercise to “strengthen your baby’s neck muscles.” To check traction response, your baby’s head should first be tilted back, when he is first lifted before straightening and then falling forward.
10. Galant Reflex
Your doctor might actually do this test at your baby’s regular checkup to see if your baby’s spinal nerves are well developed. While holding your baby facing down, your doctor will gently stroke along one side of his back. If all is well, your baby should arch his body and pull his pelvis towards the side he was stroked.
11. Tonic Neck Reflex (aka Fencing Reflex)
Image source: Stock
The last reflex on our list is something you see in newborns all the time, but pay no mind to because it seems like the most natural thing in the world. Well, have you noticed that when your child is sleeping, his head is turned to the same side as his outstretched arm and his other arm is bent at the elbow?
“En garde!” is what your baby probably looks like they’re saying when they’re in the position of tonic neck reflex. It is also called the fencing reflex because your baby has their head turned with one arm extended while the other is bent as if they’re ready for swordplay. This can last until your baby is around 5 to 7 months old.
While your baby naturally outgrows these reflexes within a couple of months, reflexes that return after they have previously gone away can be cause for concern. If you are concerned about your newborn’s reflexes or any part of his development, don’t hesitate to consult his paediatrician about it.
So mums! Out of the 11 listed above, what are the newborn reflexes you’ve tested? Which ones are your favourite?
Updates by Camille Eusebio
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