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Your newborn baby’s startle reflex! Why does my baby startle?

arms up newborn baby startle reflex info-graphic

It's a moment you have been looking forward to for a long time - the day your little one is born. 

Finally, after counting fingers and toes and staring at your baby for hours on end, you can't help but notice some of their amazing skills.

Born with primary motor responses, known as newborn reflexes, babies come with built-in skills to help them thrive and survive in their new environment.

One of the most noticeable "built-in newborn skills" is the startle reflex, also known as the Moro reflex. But - what does this reflex do, and why is your baby born with it?

Startle reflex defined

The startle reflex (Moro reflex) is a primitive, involuntary reflex characterized by the quick extension of a baby’s arms and legs. (1)

The startle reflex occurs in response to sudden changes in the environment, such as loud noises or bright lights - anything that startles your baby. 

Summary: The startle reflex is your baby’s response to sudden changes in the environment.

Development of the startle reflex

The startle reflex begins to develop as early as 25 weeks (in utero) and is one of the primitive reflexes present by birth. 

Summary: The startle reflex develops in utero and is typically gone by six months old. 

What triggers the startle reflex?

A dog barking, a doorbell ringing, transferring a baby to their crib…any sudden change in your baby’s environment can trigger the startle reflex.

While it may look jarring to see your baby's arms and legs flail - remember that it doesn't hurt your baby and is a sign that they are healthy and developing as they should.

Summary: Any change to your baby’s environment can trigger the startle reflex. 

How to calm a startled baby?

When your baby startles, here are a few things you can do to help them feel calm and safe:

Hold your baby close to your body: When you hold your baby close, you are helping to give them a sense of security and safety. This can help to calm your baby and ease the startle reflex.

Rocking your baby gently: Coupled with the security of being held close, a rocking movement helps to trigger your baby's innate calming reflex, soothing them.

Try white noise or other calming sounds: White noise is a great way to minimize the risk of outside noise from triggering the startle reflex. There are special white noise machines for the nursery and apps available for your phone. 

Swaddle your baby in a soft blanket: Swaddling helps provide a sense of security and safety for your baby, which can help to minimize the startle reflex. Zen Neo is designed to mimic the womb and help babies adapt to their new environment.

When does the startle reflex integrate?

The startle reflex typically starts to integrate between two and four months. (That's the age range when babies become more aware of their surroundings and develop a sense of object permanence). (2)

You'll know that your baby's startle reflex integrates when they no longer startle at every little noise and movement but only at loud or unfamiliar sounds. 

What to expect after the startle reflex

While most children integrate early on, it can take others up to 6 months to fully integrate this reflex into their daily lives.

Pretty soon, you won't have to walk around on eggshells. 

Terrifying moments when the Amazon driver rings the bell or you accidentally drop something a little too loudly will no longer startle the baby - who is more familiar with these sounds and is blissfully unaware in dreamland.

Alongside the decrease in the Moro Reflex, you will see that the baby has started to be more mobile. So goodbye, startle reflex - hello, rolling around!

Once the baby starts to roll, you will need to transition from a swaddle to a sleeping sack. 

Try the Zen Sack™! It is designed to mimic your touch, providing your baby with the extra security and comfort they are used to with the swaddle. 

Athena S.

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