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7 Newborn reflexes and how they help protect your baby

Reflexes are automatic responses to stimuli that protect your baby. They don't need any learning or thinking to activate them. 

Newborn reflexes are crucial the first few months but they don't last forever, so let's get to know them all before you grow out of them!

As your baby grows and develops, see if you can spot these seven newborn reflexes:

  • Rooting reflex
  • Sucking reflex
  • Startle reflex
  • Fencing reflex
  • Grasp reflex
  • Plantar reflex
  • Stepping reflex

Rooting reflex

The rooting reflex is an essential motor reflex that is present at birth. It initiates feeding by helping your newborn find the breast or bottle. (1)

When grandma or grandpa pick up your baby who turns to nibble on their shirt? That's rooting.

This is your baby's way of searching for and finding the food source so they can eat.

To test this reflex, stroke the corner of your baby's mouth or cheek. Their head will then turn to that side to mouth whatever caused the initial stimulation (your finger).

The rooting reflex develops around 28 weeks gestation and lasts about 4 to 6 months. Until your baby develops a greater understanding of feeding times and their own hunger signals.

Sucking reflex

The suck reflex works with the rooting reflex to help your newborn get nutrition.

While the rooting reflex is stimulated by a touch on the outside of the cheek, the suck reflex takes over once that something touches the roof of the baby's mouth.

This reflex develops in utero around the 32 -36 week mark.  While sucking is a primitive motor reflex, not all babies get the hang of it at first. (2)

But after time, and some practice, your bundle of joy will become well-versed in this skill, and it will become less of a reflex and more of a honed skill set in about 6-7 months.

Newborn reflexes chart

Below is a newborn reflexes chart showing a general guideline of what you will see during the first weeks at home. 

Startle reflex (Moro reflex)

The startle reflex is a baby's natural response to new (and loud) stimuli as they adjust to life outside of the womb.

You will not have to go out of your way to test this reflex, as you will most likely do it by accident.

Have a dog that barks? An Amazon driver who rings the doorbell? A mother-in-law who always throws around pots and pans when cooking? You will naturally see your baby startle.

When the Moro reflex is triggered (usually by a loud noise or sudden movement), the baby will throw their arms and legs out and quickly bring them back in towards their chest.

Swaddling helps to reduce the startle reflex because it restricts your baby’s movements creating a womb-like environment.

The Zen Neo baby swaddle is specifically designed to help your baby as they adjust to the outside world.

Fencing reflex (tonic neck)

One of your baby's first reflexes develops is tonic neck or more commonly known as the fencing reflex. It appears at 18 weeks (in utero) and integrates somewhere between three and nine months after birth. (3)

You will see this reflex most prominently between one and four months of age.

When you place your baby on their back, gently turn their head to one side. Watch as your baby extends their arm and leg on the same side while their opposite arm and leg bend. 

It is a very cute reflex that looks like they are "fencing" themselves in for a nap.

Grasp reflex (palmar grasp)

There is nothing sweeter than a newborn baby wrapping their little fingers around one of yours.

While we are looking down at our sweet bundle with love hearts popping all over our heads, the baby is displaying their palmar grasp or grasp reflex.

When something strokes the palm of a baby's hand, their fingers will close around it. 

The grasp reflex lasts about 6 months and its purpose is laying the foundation for the basic motor patterns necessary to grab objects intentionally. (4)

Babinski sign (plantar reflex)

You might have heard of the plantar reflex or "Babinski sign.” This is testing the corticospinal tract (CST).

Your primary care physician will stroke your baby's foot from the heel towards the toes. As they do this watch your baby's big toe bend back as the other toes fan out.

The Babinski sign is considered normal up to 24 months of age. (5)

Stepping reflex

There is always that silly uncle or aunt who hovers baby above the ground while they exclaim, "Look! She's walking!" When, in fact, the baby is just showing off her stepping reflex.

This reflex occurs when the baby is held upright with their feet touching a hard surface. Baby will lift one foot and then the other as if they are taking steps.

Not really a "true" sign of walking, but maybe we can let auntie think she taught her favorite niece how to walk.

The stepping reflex lasts about 2 months. (6)

Newborn reflexes: key takeaways

Newborn reflexes are crucial the first few months but they don't last forever. 

As your baby grows, they will start to integrate their newborn reflexes into more controlled, intentional movements.

Precious finger grabbing and silly baby-stepping will be gone before you know it, so enjoy these newborn moments before your little bundle of joy runs circles around you!

Athena S.

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