Newborn reflexes & what they mean

The reflexes of a newborn are instinctive, and enable your baby to react to their environment. All healthy infants are born with the same reflexes which help them through the birth process and are useful in their first weeks of life. However, each infant’s response to a reflex is entirely unique and will depend on their personality. Yes… babies do have personalities from birth!

Rooting (or sucking)

These reflexes are crucial to your baby’s survival. Touching or stroking your baby’s cheek will cause them to subconsciously move their mouth, opening it in the direction of the source of touch as if to latch and feed on the breast or bottle. When the inside of the infant’s mouth is stimulated, a coordinated sucking and swallowing reflex will begin.

“The grasping reflex is very strong and remains present for the first three to four months of life.”

Hand-to-mouth (Babkin)

The Babkin reflex is similar to the rooting reflex in that when you stroke your newborn’s cheek or the palm of their hand, your baby will bring their fist to their mouth and suck it enthusiastically for a few minutes. This helps your baby to suck and swallow any mucus that may be congesting their upper airway.

Righting – traction or “head lag”

When you hold your baby by both wrists and gently lift them forward into a sitting position, their head should first lag back, then straighten and fall forward. This is because the head is heavy and the muscles needed to support the head are not yet developed, so their head will wobble back and forth. Remember to support their head when you pick them up.

Tonic neck reflex – fencing position

Newborns lie with one cheek facing down when on their backs. The infant will arch away from the face in a fencing-like position as the arm on the face side straightens and the opposite arm flexes up. Lying in this position gives your baby an opportunity to discover their own hand in the weeks to come. It is thought that this position prevents them from rolling over because it is difficult to turn over on an outstretched arm.

Grasping – Palmer grasp reflex

Your newborn’s hands will most probably be clenched in a fist. When they open these, their fingers will grasp any small object you place in their palm. The grasping reflex is very strong and remains present for the first three to four months of life. It is even present in a premature baby, who may grasp your fingers or objects for a few seconds or minutes.

“The most dramatic reflex is the startle reflex.”

Babinski’s reflex, walking and stepping

When you touch the soles of your baby’s feet, they will curl their toes. This reflex remains present until they start standing up by themselves. Another reflex located on the sole of the foot is called the “Babinski reflex”. If you gently stroke the sole from heel to toe, your baby will turn up their toes and turn their foot inwards. The Babinski reflex is present for the first two years.

Hold your baby upright with your hands underneath their armpits. Let their feet touch a flat surface and they will bend each leg as in a walking motion. This walking or stepping reflex is present for the first eight weeks and fades rapidly, but will reappear months later as a voluntary behaviour in preparation for actual walking. Stroking a single leg causes the other leg to bend across the first leg and push away the hand stroking the leg.

Lifting

When lying on their tummy, your baby will lift their head and turn it from side to side and may even appear to be attempting to crawl. It is virtually impossible for the infant to be smothered because of these reflexes but you cannot be too careful! Always be sure to place your baby on a firm surface away from pillows, blankets and soft toys.

Startle – Moro

The most dramatic reflex is the startle reflex. A loud noise or rough handling will result in your baby “startling” or throwing back their arms and legs, arching their back, extending their neck, grimacing and crying out.

Your baby will be disturbed by their own reaction and if there is no one to hold them, each startle will trigger another one. You can help calm your baby by bringing their arms and legs close to their body and holding or swaddling them firmly against your body. The Moro reflex disappears by about three months of age.