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9 Newborn Reflexes
Learn about primitive reflexes, including why and when your baby will root, grasp, startle, thrust her tongue, and more
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Because a newborn has limited control over his body, Mother Nature equipped him with many innate survival skills. These reflexes, while necessary, can make him seem like a bundle of nerves—twitching, jerking, and kicking at odd times—but they’re actually signs that everything is working just fine. Many of these primitive responses will disappear in a few months as your baby’s body becomes more organized and he no longer needs them. Meanwhile, you can keep tabs on his development by performing these fun and fascinating little checkups.
What It Is: Rooting reflex
Check It Out: Stroke the side of your baby’s cheek with your fingers or breast and he’ll turn his head toward it, open wide, and begin to make sucking movements with his mouth. This most basic of survival instincts can be a big help to nursing moms trying to teach their babies to latch on.
When It Disappears: About four months.
What It Is: Moro (or startle) reflex
Check It Out: Sit your baby upright for a few seconds with your hands lightly gripping her underarms, and your fingers supporting her neck then suddenly but gently lower her back a bit. She’ll throw out her arms and legs and extend her neck, as if to say, Pick me up! Loud, unexpected noises may elicit this reflex, and she may even cry when especially startled.
When It Disappears: Around two months.
What It Is: Walking (or stepping) reflex
Check It Out: Hold your baby under his armpits with his legs dangling, then lower him so his toes touch the floor. He should immediately place one foot in front of the other and start to “walk” in place.
When It Disappears: Around two months. (Perhaps it’s nature’s way of telling him he’s not really ready?)
What It Is: Grasp reflex
Check It Out: Stroke your baby’s palm with your finger. She’ll immediately grab your finger and hold on so tight you might have to pry her little fingers off. It’s her way of holding you and trying to get as much skin-to-skin contact as she can. If you stroke the sole of her foot, she’ll curl up her toes in the same way, too.
When It Disappears: Gradually, beginning in about the third month.
What It Is: Tonic neck (or fencing) reflex
Check It Out: When your baby is lying on his back, gently turn his head to the right. His right arm will shoot out in front of him and he’ll raise his other arm above his head. He’ll do the same thing on the opposite side if you turn his head to the left. Doctors have no idea what this reflex is for, but it does help your baby focus on the hand that’s out in front of him.
When It Disappears: Between four and five months
What It Is: Righting reflex
Check It Out: Gently drop a blanket over your baby’s face. She’ll automatically shake her head from side to side and flail her arms until it falls off—it’s your baby’s way of protecting herself. As she gets bigger, this reflex will evolve as necessary. For instance, when she’s learning to sit up, she’ll automatically stick her hand out to catch herself if she begins to topple over.
When It Disappears: Toward the end of the first year, as muscle tone and control improve.
What It Is: Tongue-thrust reflex
Check It Out: Touch a baby spoon to the tip of her tongue and watch her push it back out. This reflex prevents her from choking on foreign objects. When It Disappears: Between four and six months, which is one reason why it doesn’t usually make sense to attempt solid feeding any earlier—except in the rare instance of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), when doctors may recommend slightly thickening infant formula with rice cereal in a bottle.
What It Is: Withdrawal reflex
Check It Out: When your baby is sitting contentedly in his bouncy seat, suddenly bring your face close to his. He’ll quickly turn his head away in another attempt at self-protection. He’ll do the same if it’s an object headed his way (you may have noticed it in the blanket test just above), to avoid a collision.
When It Disappears: Fortunately, it lasts a lifetime! Or at least until that cute chick from algebra zooms in for a kiss.
This is an excerpt from THE BABYTALK INSIDER’S GUIDE TO YOUR BABY’S FIRST YEAR by the Editors of Babytalk Magazine. Copyright © 2008 by The Parenting Group, Inc. Published by Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.