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Rooting reflex in newborns: What is it and Why it develops

baby rooting reflex

Babies are not handed over at the hospital with a how-to book but they do - kind of - come with a user manual. 

Parents just need to learn how to decode their mannerisms.

Was that a smile or a burp? Why do they turn their head to the side when you touch their cheek?

Knowing what signs to look for and what they mean can help you meet the needs of your little one with ease. 

To help you along, you may not know—but should know what the rooting reflex is in newborns.

  • Defined
  • Development
  • Triggers
  • Integrate

What is the rooting reflex in babies?

The rooting reflex (search reflex) helps your baby find the nipple to start feeding. This newborn reflex will last approximately four months. (1) 

You can see the rooting reflex by gently stroking or touching the corner of your baby's mouth. Watch as your baby turns their head and opens their mouth to “root” in the direction of your touch. (2) 

Summary: The rooting reflex helps your baby find the nipple at feeding time and lasts four months.

Development of the rooting reflex

Your little one is actually born with primitive reflexes <internal link to newborn reflexes article> ready to help them take on the world. 

One of these is the rooting reflex, it develops in utero around the 28 week mark. (3)

The rooting reflex is a great signal for new parents that your baby may be hungry. 

If you’re not sure what this looks like, we will show you how to trigger the rooting reflex next.

Summary: The rooting reflex develops in the womb at around 28 weeks of age. 

Rooting reflex triggers

At your baby's first checkup, it might look like your doctor is stroking your baby's cheek and humming songs to soothe them — but your pediatrician is testing your baby's reflexes.

To trigger the rooting reflex, your doctor will stroke the outermost part of her cheek. 

Amazingly your baby will turn their head toward the touch and open their mouth. That's the rooting reflex in action! (6)

You can test your babies rooting reflex at home by gently stroking the outermost part of their cheek and watch as their head towards your hand and open their mouth.

Summary: The rooting reflex is triggered by gently stroking a baby’s cheek.

Does rooting always mean the baby is hungry?

Once you can spot the rooting reflex, you can't mistake it. It’s absolutely adorable and memorable.

Sometimes the rooting reflex seems to scream "feed me," as your baby is trying to root on anything they possibly can — a stuffed animal, your shirt, the dog's tail (yes, it's happened here). 

But sometimes — the rooting reflex can be exploring their surroundings or tired and trying to soothe themselves back to sleep. 

When your baby is rooting, pay attention to other cues, it could be a false alarm. For example, you may be making the all too common swaddling mistake below.

Summary: Rooting doesn’t always mean that your little one is hungry. 

Does rooting always mean the baby is hungry?

Your baby may also root while sleeping. Baby rooting while sleeping can be a sign of their brains are still developing and they are trying to learn about their surroundings. Although it may look like they are searching for food, they are actually just exploring their new environment.

Common swaddling mistakes 

We mentioned earlier that when something touches a baby's cheek — it will trigger the rooting reflex. 

Now imagine that it's 1 am and in the darkness of your room, you are trying to swaddle your baby to help them fall back asleep.

In your exhaustion (and lack of sight) the swaddle blanket is left accidentally rubbing their cheek?

Baby rooting reflex triggered!

Your baby (and you) will not have a good night's sleep with anything triggering the rooting reflex. 

If you don’t want to fret about getting the swaddle just right try the Zen Neo

Nested Bean’s Zen Neo takes the guesswork out of swaddling (the best for late-night-exhausted swaddling) and helps with other newborn reflexes.

Summary: Use Zen Neo to make nighttime changes simple.    

When does the rooting reflex integrate?

Around the four month mark, you may notice that the rooting reflex seems to have magically disappeared.

This is because it’s no longer needed!

Around the four month mark, your baby is getting better at understanding how feeding works.

Instead of reacting to every touch of the cheek, they begin to understand that they are fed regularly and don’t have to search or root for the nipple. 

As the rooting reflex stops you may also notice that your baby turns their head away when full. This is because they are developing a greater understanding of their own hunger signals.

Summary: Rooting reflex integrates around the four month developmental mark.

What to expect after the rooting reflex

Four months is the first major developmental milestone. It is when your baby moves from being a newborn to an infant. 

Your baby is becoming more aware of themselves and their surroundings, which gives their brain a lot more information to work with. 

You may notice that along with their newborn reflexes they will also abandon their newborn sleep cycles.

With each cognitive milestone your little one will develop greater independence. They'll be more aware of what's going on, testing how they can connect and react, one step at a time.

The takeaway

A newborn's reflexes are essential during their first few weeks of life and can act as a mini “user manual'' for new parents.

Rooting is an essential newborn reflex to familiarize yourself with. Because it helps babies locate a nipple to feed, it can help parents understand when their newborn may be hungry. 

Common Questions about Rooting reflex in newborns:

How does the rooting reflex best help infants?

An infant's rooting reflex plays an important role in their development. It helps them to latch onto their mother's breast and to feed. Additionally, it allows them to keep their heads up and support their own body weight. Infants' rooting reflex also contributes to their ability to swallow.

What is rooting reflex?

The rooting reflex is a reflex that newborn infants display when the corner of their mouth is touched. This reflex is important for breastfeeding, as it helps the infant to latch on to the mother's nipple. The rooting reflex generally disappears when a child is around 4 months.

When does rooting reflex develop?

The rooting reflex is an important early milestone in an infant's development. Babies who are born before 28 weeks may not have their rooting reflex yet. For most babies, this reflex starts to develop around 28 to 30 weeks. A premature baby may start sucking before this time, but they may have difficulty finding your breast.

Does rooting reflex mean baby is hungry?

The rooting reflex is an important early sign of hunger in newborns. When a baby's cheek is stroked or touched, they will turn their head towards the stimulus and open their mouth. This reflex helps them to find the nipple and begin breastfeeding. However, it is important to note that the rooting reflex does not always mean that a baby is hungry. Sometimes a baby may root when they are tired, uncomfortable, or just exploring their surroundings.

Athena S.

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