You may be alarmed the first time you see your little one jerk her arms or legs, or appear to get a fright – but take comfort in knowing that this is normal. “These kicking, jerking and twitching movements in newborn babies are called primitive reflexes,” says Johannesburg-based paediatrician Dr Dewald Buitendag. He goes on to explain that because newborns have limited control over their bodies, they’re equipped with temporary survival skills in the form of these reflexes.
If your little one has these reflex movements often, it’s an indication that her body is reacting to external stimuli and she’s doing just fine. Some of these primitive reflexes will disappear in a few months, as her body becomes more developed and she no longer needs them. But for now, learn more about what each reflex means and why your baby has them.
What it looks like: When you stroke the side of your baby’s cheek with your finger or breast, she’ll turn her head to that side, open her mouth and immediately begin to make sucking movements.
Why it happens: This is an essential reflex for babies, as it’s linked to how they feed.
How long it will last: This reflex disappears at about four months.
What it looks like: This is usually the reflex that parents notice first – as it looks as if your little one has had a big fright. “The startle or Moro reflex is a commonly seen primitive reflex in newborn babies,” says Dr Buitendag. It usually occurs in response to a loud noise, sudden movement or the sensation of falling when you put your baby down in her bassinette without enough support. The reflex consists of her tightening her body, flinging her arms up and out, opening her usually clenched fists, drawing up her knees and then bringing her arms and re-clenched fists close to her body as if she’s giving herself a hug. She may also cry a little. Paediatricians often test this reflex when they examine newborns.
Why it happens: Although it might appear that your baby’s in distress, this is a normal newborn reflex and parents don’t have to be concerned, says Dr Buitendag. “It’s a remnant of human evolution, when it assisted a baby clinging to her mother all day. If she lost her balance, the reflex caused her to embrace her mother and regain her hold on her mother’s body,” he adds.
How long it will last: This reflex disappears by about two to three months.
What it looks like: If you hold your little one upright and plant her feet on the ground, she’ll immediately place one foot in front of the other as though she knows how to walk.
Why it happens: This primitive reflex originated in the central nervous system. It’s a natural instinct for human beings to show signs of wanting to walk, even before they’re physically able to.
How long it will last: This reflex will disappear at about two months.
What it looks like: When you stroke the palm of your baby’s hand, she’ll grab your finger and hold it tightly.
Why it happens: The grasp reflex teaches infants how to use their hands and hold things, which is a precursor to feeding themselves, explains Dr Buitendag.
How long it will last: This reflex disappears gradually, beginning in about the third month.
Fencing reflex (or tonic neck reflex)
What it looks like: When your baby is lying on her back and you turn her head to the right, she’ll extend her arm and leg on the right side while flexing her arm and leg on the opposite side, assuming a fencing position.
Why it happens: This is another primitive reflex that occurs in newborns, and nothing to be concerned about.
How long it will last: This reflex usually disappears at about six months.
What it looks like: As your little approaches four to six months, she’ll start to instinctively put her hands out if she topples forward. Many baby movement classes include activities that stimulate and encourage this reflex, such as allowing your baby to roll forwards on a ball while you hold her hips.
Why it happens: This reflex is essential to help your baby learn to protect her head and neck if she falls.
How long it will last: This reflex remains throughout life.
Tongue thrust reflex
What it looks like: This reflex is demonstrated when you touch the tip of your baby’s tongue with a spoon and she pushes it back out, says Dr Buitendag.
Why it happens: This reflex aids in breastfeeding, but it also indicates that your little one’s notready to eat solids. This is a normal, protective reflex, which also helps to prevent choking.
How long it will last: It disappears between four and six months – just when your little one is ready to start solids.
What it looks like: If an object comes towards your baby, she will immediately turn her head and try to get away if she senses it’s dangerous.
Why it happens: This reflex is a good thing, as it’s there to protect your baby, says Dr Buitendag.
How long it will last: The good news is that this reflex will always be present.
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.