What Are Primitive Reflexes?
Primitive reflexes are involuntary movement patterns controlled by the brain stem and executed without reaching the cortical or conscious part of the brain. Seven primitive reflexes emerge in utero, and integrate before the child reaches about 12 months of age.
These reflexes include
Palmar (Grasp) Reflex,
Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR),
Spinal Galant Reflex,
Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR), and
Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)
Primitive reflexes are necessary during the birthing process, and they are key to the infant’s first-year survival. Instinctively, the infant responds to the world via the primitive reflexes. Together the reflexes help the infant move through the birth canal, take his or her first breath, instinctively withdraw from hazardous stimuli, urinate, creep, grasp, lift their heads, open their mouth, suck and swallow, and kick. Each primitive reflex has its benefits and is a building block to the infant’s future movement patterns and how he or she perceives the world via the senses. Therefore, primitive reflexes also impact emotional development. In a healthy and typically developing brain, the infant slowly begins to integrate these reflexes naturally, and they become dormant, so a more mature reflex pattern called the “postural reflexes” can develop.
Postural reflexes are mature patterns of responses that control balance, motor coordination, and sensory motor development. Postural reflexes succeed primitive reflexes, and retention of the latter will affect the child’s development. It is challenging to work on the child’s postural reflexes, for instance, without first going back and making sure the brain has integrated the primitive reflexes. For this reason, therapists should start treatment with primitive reflex screening and integration programs to set a solid developmental foundation.
In cases where there is the presence of trauma, genetic abnormality, chronic illness, developmental delays, or pregnancy or birthing complications, primitive reflexes may still be actively present in the child’s body. If primitive reflexes are actively present when they should be inhibited, they are called “retained reflexes.” Retained reflexes will continue to cause involuntary movement patterns or physical responses that will in turn cause faulty learning processes. Also, as the baby continues to grow, he or she begins to perceive the world in an immature way, and behavioral challenges may follow.
This article is taken from a chapter in my upcoming book Integrating Primitive Reflexes Through Play and Exercises: An Interactive Guide to Parents, Teachers, and Service Providers. Click the link to be informed when the book comes out.