This could be what's behind your kid's problems in school
Could your kid’s messy handwriting or trouble sitting still be traced back to those innate reflexes they had as infants? Here’s what you need to know about retained primitive reflexes.
The instincts babies are born with are fascinating. When newborns hear a loud sound, their tiny arms and legs go up in the air as part of the moro, or startle, reflex. If you stroke a newborn’s cheek, they turn their heads and start sucking, in anticipation of a nipple, a reaction known as the rooting reflex.
Some reflexes are key to a baby’s survival, like being able to root and find nutrition. The purpose of others is unknown, although some experts believe that the startle reflex is an evolutionary response from a time when babies needed to cling to their mothers. A big startle and cry would let mom know that baby was falling. Having these reflexes is a sign that all is well—paediatricians check them to test the normal development of babies during the Apgar test at birth and during regular checkups. As a child grows, they typically grow out of, or integrate, these behaviours. But if the reflexes stick around into toddlerhood or beyond they can actually start to cause problems.
An emerging field of thought among therapists suggests that these infant reflexes can show up in problematic and entirely unexpected ways if they’re retained just a few years down the road. In fact, these so-called retained primitive reflexes could underlie everything from problems with motor skills to hyperactivity once kids reach school age.
The problem with retaining reflexes
In cases where reflexes are retained only to a mild degree, children may exhibit symptoms that pose challenges but don’t sound alarm bells for parents or educators. Depending on the reflex that’s retained, signs can include:
In more severe cases, retained primitive reflexes are thought to be major contributing factors to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorders. A 2012 study from the Czech Republic published in a journal for Neurocognitive Research showed that children with ADHD have high occurrences of retained primitive reflexes. But there’s been no conclusive evidence that one could cause the other.
Primitive reflexes are important for babies’ development since they not only help develop the brain and nervous system, but they are important to help the baby work on strength and, later, voluntary movements. But if they remain active beyond the normal developmental period, they can interfere with the progression of voluntary skills or motor skills, like kicking, head lifting, reaching and crawling.
As babies grow, and develop deliberate movements to replace their reflexive ones, their nervous systems are stimulated to integrate (or turn off) primitive reflexes. These transitions take place at different times depending on the reflex, but are usually completed by toddlerhood. (Of course, instincts don’t disappear completely—as adults, we still startle when something scares us, but it’s not our go-to response for every surprising situation.)
Just as you can’t run until you can walk, reflex integration is part of the hierarchy of neural development. It’s one of the steps needed in order to for new steps or skills to be achievable. For instance, a child who has retained the spinal galant reflex—which helped them move their hips as an infant in preparation for walking and crawling—could have trouble sitting still.
If their body needs to twitch in response to a certain stimulus, it takes great effort to stop it consciously—the child has to fight their own body. It’s like someone asking you to not startle when a fire alarm suddenly blares above your head. Except that the trigger for kids with retained reflexes is usually something subtler, like a sudden noise or something lightly stroking their skin.
Babies get overstimulated by these things because their brains aren’t ready to process all the sensations they’re being exposed to. That’s what’s happening to kids with retained reflexes. The neural pathways needed to control their bodies and reactions haven’t been made. They are still stuck in the patterns created in infancy.
Some research is emerging: The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology conducted a study in Ireland and Germany in 2003/2004, and found that between 35 and 48 percent of children in regular school programs and up to 100 percent of children in special education programs showed signs of primitive reflex retention.
It takes just minutes a day to integrate these primitive reflexes at any age, beyond the early childhood stage. The exercises need to be done daily, or at least 5 times a week in order to see a change. When more reflexes needs to be integrated it will take a few months to integrate them all, it can take up to a year to fully integrate all reflexes.
What ages are best for primitive reflex therapy?
Children ages 4-16 tend to benefit the most from primitive reflex therapy. Some three-year-olds will catch on just fine, depending on the child. Each child is different. Even adults can benefit from the exercise.
Does my child need a diagnosis to do primitive reflex therapy?
No. Whether you're in the process of getting a diagnosis for your child, haven't started, or your child falls into that "gray area," they can benefit from the therapy.
How is primitive reflex therapy different from other therapy?
Primitive reflex therapy looks directly at the underlying neurological CAUSE of the child's behavior/inability to cope with their surroundings. When we are able to improve proper neurological function through primitive reflex therapy, additional therapies such as occupational, speech, language, behavior, play and physical therapy given to the child will be that much more effective.
Does primitive reflex therapy replace other therapies like physical therapy or speech therapy?
No. Primitive reflex therapy does not replace behavior therapies or any other therapies such as speech & language, occupational, etc. In fact, if an individual is receiving such therapies, primitive reflex therapy will enhance their ability to succeed in those therapies. It supports the connection and the communication between the body and brain—to help the child to be able to respond better to sensory stimuli around them, thus improving their behavior.
Practice BrainConnection works with one reflex integration method:
Please contact me for more information.