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Primitive reflexes

What are primitive reflexes?

Primitive reflexes are automatic, involuntary actions that are controlled from the brain stem that are there to ensure the baby's survival after birth. For example, the rooting and sucking reflexes mean the baby is able to breastfeed within moments of birth. Once the reflexes have served their function and the child develops, these reflexes are no longer needed and are either integrated or take a back seat while the higher brain takes over and the replacement postural reflexes kick in. This is an essential part of development, allowing us to perform more complex tasks, such as learning, movement control and social interaction.

What happens if these reflexes are retained?

Primitive reflexes are supposed to 'turn off' in a sequential order so that the postural reflexes  emerge. But if they're retained for any reason, this can place a huge amount of stress on the nervous system, which has a direct impact on the immune system. The brain has to work harder to accomplish tasks that have not become automatic, which can have an adverse effect on development, learning ability and behaviour.

Retained reflexes influence emotional, mental and physical development and wellbeing not only during childhood, but throughout our adult lives as well.

Why do reflexes get retained?

There are any number of reasons why reflexes don't integrate. The way a baby is birthed is a key factor in the integration of a number of reflexes. A traumatic birth process, for example, or a caesarean birth may lead to retained reflexes. Other factors can include falls, stress, trauma, delayed developmental milestones like sitting or crawling, or even developmental stages that are skipped altogether.

What signs or symptoms should I be looking for?

Well, they can be varied and are often very similar to those of ADHD, autism, learning disabilities and sensory processing disorders. Retained reflexes can lead to developmental delays, coordination issues or clumsiness, lack of concentration, trouble sitting still, over-reactive or over-sensitive behaviour, jumbling up letters, difficulty reading and scanning across a page, speech problems, poor posture, difficulty copying from a blackboard, articulation issues and feelings of anxiety, being overly shy or withdrawn. These are just some of the signs of a retained reflex.

What are these reflexes called and what do they do?

Well, there are quite a few of them, I have 37 balances for them, in fact! So rather than list all of them, I'll list a few of the more common ones, what they're there for, and some of the symptoms that may show up if they're not integrated properly.

  • Fear Paralysis Reflex – this develops in utero in the fifth to seventh week and remains active throughout your lifetime, but is supposed to transform into the mature Strauss Reaction, which is all about being able to show an appropriate reaction to shocking or startling situations (i.e you see a big tiger on the other side of the street and don't want to get eaten so you run away, very fast). This reflex is the basis for all the other reflexes. If it's not transformed, the following symptoms may occur: total immobility in response to moments of panic – you totally freeze; low muscle tone; hypersensitivity to lights, sounds, crowds of people and to criticism; withdrawn; extreme shyness and/or anxiety; fear of separation; inability to express or show emotion.

  • Moro Reflex – also known as the startle reflex, this develops in the 28th week in utero and should integrate somewhere between the ages of three and four months. The reflex is triggered by a sudden change in head position in relation to the body or by a sudden change in body position in relation to space. It's there so the baby will breathe and stretch the body right after birth and prepares the baby to hold up its head. When the reflex is active, there's a surge in the amount of adrenaline and cortisol released, which has a direct effect on the performance of the immune system. If the reflex is not fully integrated, the following symptoms may occur: over-reactive and over-sensitive to situations; disorientation; feeling constantly stressed or in fight or flight, especially when faced with new tasks; changes to routines cause fear and extreme emotional reactions; the ability to form healthy social relationships can be impacted; reduced learning capacity; dilated pupils; hypersensitive to sounds; poor motor skills in sports, especially ball games; poor concentration; weak immune system.

  • Spinal Galant Reflex – this develops in the 15th to the 18th week in utero and becomes active in utero and helps in the birthing process. It should integrate between the fifth and ninth month. It is responsible for the development of hearing and for the balance in the inner ear. If the reflex is not fully integrated, the following symptoms may occur: lack of bladder control/bed wetting; trouble sitting still as the back touching the chair can trigger the reflex; poor short-term memory; hyperactivity; unstructured handwriting; lack of concentration; dislike of tight-fitting clothes.

  • Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex – this develops in the 12th week in utero and should integrate by the age of four months. It's triggered during birth and by the head changing position forwards or backwards. It prepares the child for rolling, crawling, standing and walking. If this reflex isn't integrated, the Head Righting Reflex will not be able to develop properly and the following symptoms may occur: lack of concentration; poor posture; muscle tension throughout the whole body; difficulty sitting upright; motion sickness; walking on tiptoes; learning difficulties; slow work rate; jumbled letters.

How can kinesiology help with retained reflexes?

Through the gentle modality of muscle testing to find a stress response, kinesiology can discover if, and which, reflexes have been retained. From there, during the kinesiology balance, the reflex pathways are destressed, leading to reflex integration and a reduction in symptoms.

For more information on retained reflexes, to chat about how they may be affecting you or your child or to make an appointment, please see the Contact and Book a session pages.