Babies are born with primitive reflexes—automatic physical responses that increase their chances of being born properly and of surviving infancy. These same primitive reflexes, if they persist beyond the first few months of life, can indicate poor physical functioning in the toddler, and reading and handwriting problems for the young child.
Some common primitive reflexes include:
Moro Reflex (or startle reflex): This reflex has three parts. First, the baby rapidly extends his arms. Then, just as rapidly, he pulls his arms close to his trunk. Lastly, he cries. When a baby feels he is falling or losing his balance, he displays this reflex. It is the baby’s way of showing fear. The Moro reflex shows for the first four months of life and then subsides. If it persists beyond four or five months, the child may show sensory processing problems, anxiety, balance and coordination difficulties, poor muscle tone, motion sickness and poor impulse control.
ATNR: The asymmetrical tonic neck reflex shows when a new baby moves her head from one side to another. If her head turns to one side, her arm and leg on that side extend into a straight position while her arm and leg on the opposite side bend. The ATNR reflex is sometimes called the fencing reflex because the baby takes the same pose as a fencer. This reflex develops before birth and helps the baby navigate through the birth canal. Usually it disappears by six months, but if it continues, it could show as several problems.
- Handwriting can be difficult because each time the child turns her head, the hand on that side will want to straighten and the grip on the pencil will loosen. Children compensate by holding their pencils tightly, causing stress in the hand. They focus on the physical process of holding a pencil rather than on the ideas they are writing. The handwriting might slope every which way.
- Reading can be difficult because of eye tracking problems. Instead of moving smoothly across a page of text, the eyes jump. The child might lose her place and lose comprehension.
- Mixed laterality can show as a child not developing a dominant hand for writing, holding utensils and catching a ball, and not developing a dominant foot for kicking, walking and running. The brain is more efficient if one side dominates. Otherwise both sides compete for dominance. Poor coordination can result.
STNR: The symmetrical tonic neck reflex shows between six and eight months of age. When a child is on his tummy, this reflex allows the child to straighten his arms and bend his legs in order to crawl. This reflex is needed for crawling and for developing hand-eye coordination. As the child grows, the STNR reflex allows the child to read without losing his place and to follow his hand with his eyes while writing.
TLR: The tonic labyrinthine reflex causes the baby’s arms and legs to extend when the baby’s head turns up, and causes the arms and legs to fold when the head bends down. This reflex helps a baby to crawl. Children with poor posture, or who walk on their toes, or who have trouble playing with a ball may have this reflex persisting long after four months of age. If it persists it can also interfere with speaking because the tongue wants to extend.
Spinal Galant Reflex: When an infant’s skin is stroked on the side of her back, she will tend to move toward the stroked side. This helps during birth but usually disappears by nine months. If not, problems could include an inability to sit still; a dislike of tight clothing, especially around the waist; bed wetting; and poor short term memory, making reading comprehension difficult.