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What is Rooting Reflex in Babies and What Should Parents Do?

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, we’ve created this guide on what the rooting reflex is in newborns. You’ll discover what it means if your baby is constantly rooting in sleep and how you can address this as a parent. Let’s not waste any time!

What is rooting reflex in babies?

First things first - what is 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) 

Development of the newborn rooting reflex

Your little one is actually born with primitive reflexes ready to help them take on the world, such as the moro reflex. The rooting reflex is another example.

One of these is the rooting reflex, it develops in utero around the 28 week mark. (3) Babies who are born before 28 weeks may not have their rooting reflex yet. A premature baby may start sucking before this time, but they may have difficulty finding your breast.

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.

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.

Does rooting always mean a baby is hungry?

Once you can spot the rooting reflex, you can't mistake it. It’s absolutely adorable and memorable. But what does it mean - does rooting always mean a baby is hungry, or could there be another explanation for your baby constantly rooting?

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.

What to do about your baby rooting in sleep

Your baby may also root while sleeping. Baby rooting while sleeping can be a sign that 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.

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 how to swaddle a baby to avoid triggering this reflex try the Zen Neo. This weighted swaddle is commonly referred to as the best swaddle for preemie babies, but you can use the zipper swaddle up to the point they weight 11lbs. 

Nested Bean’s Zen Neo takes the guesswork out of swaddling (the best for late-night-exhausted swaddling) and helps with other newborn reflexes. But we have other swaddle types too, such as our transitional swaddle - again, it’s considered the best transition swaddle

Nested Bean has all the best baby sleepwear you need to conquer parenthood with confidence, ranging from our weighted sleep sacks to bamboo fabric sleep sacks, winter sleep sacks, the best baby PJs, and more.

You can learn more about how to dress baby for sleep, where you’ll learn about what to wear under sleep sack and choosing the best swaddle for summer or the best sleep sack for winter. In the meantime, let’s talk about when the rooting reflex in babies integrates.

When does the rooting reflex in babies 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.

What to expect after the rooting reflex

Four months is the first major baby 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 schedule and baby nap schedule. You’ll need to come up with a newborn bedtime routine that works for your growing child at this point.

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.

Wrapping up our guide to rooting reflex in newborn babies

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. We hope this guide to rooting reflex in newborn babies has provided you with complete clarity on the subject!

Want to learn more about the journey ahead as a new parent? Our blog is filled with helpful resources on everything from how to get baby to sleep in bassinet to safe cosleeping with baby, when should baby sleep in own room, when to start sleep training, how to put a baby to sleep fast, signs of sleep regression, when to stop using a sleep sack, when do toddlers stop napping, and more.

Remember - whether you’re looking for the best transitional sleep sack or the best swaddle for baby who hates swaddles, Nested Bean has you covered. 

Our soft, gently weighted products help you alleviate baby separation anxiety and create positive sleep associations. The end result? Better sleep. So, invest in a consistent sleep schedule for your entire household at Nested Bean today!

Athena S.

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