The primitive reflexes are a group of motor reflexes found in new-born babies. They develop in utero and share the characteristics of being present at birth in a full-term, healthy baby and are mediated or arise from the brainstem.
A reflex is an immediate involuntary response evoked by a given stimulus. All reflex responses are involuntary and are not cognitive or actively set off. A stimulus which triggers a reflex always results in the same response. Primitive reflexes are motor/movement reflexes and a specific stimuli will lead to the same pattern or sequence of movements.
A large number of reflexes are found in the brainstem – a very old area of the brain positioned between the spinal cord and the cerebral hemispheres. The first of the primitive reflexes to emerge in utero is the Moro reflex, which appears between nine – twelve weeks after conception. In the first year of life, as a child grows and matures, the primitive reflexes are integrated or absorbed and replaced by the postural reflexes. Primitive reflexes never disappear but can be activated deliberately and they might gradually re-emerge with aging. Following head injury or cerebral insult or disease, they may dramatically re-appear.
The role of primitive reflexes is two-fold: firstly, to help with survival in those delicate early months when the baby’s nervous system is not fully connected and secondly, to assist the baby to move. As previously mentioned, reflex movement is patterned, consistent and involuntary movement but this movement helps to make the baby aware of his body and his surroundings. Gradually, as the primitive reflexes retreat or are integrated, conscious voluntary movements will be established.
The primitive reflexes can be divided into three groups – the multisensory reflex, primitive reflexes of position and the primitive tactile reflexes.
“During the first period of life, the child imitates all that goes on in its surroundings in a bodily-religious way.” Steiner, Understanding Young Children, Walking, Speaking, Thinking.
Our sense of movement gives us awareness of our muscles and joints. When children sit, stand, and move about at their own pace, they are developing their proprioception and vestibular senses, where they are in space, and their sense of balance. Movement integrates our senses and “every movement which we perform with our body is a visible expression of our will,” according to anthroposophical pediatrician Susan R. Johnson. Steiner says that self movement is related to the development of the will. In this paper, I will focus on the primitive reflexes that I have worked with regarding my own child and which I am able to identify through observation. Note that there are other reflexes which will not be discussed here.
Movements made as a result of reflex action myelinize the brain circuitry – like a road map. Sally Goddard states in her book, Reflexes, Learning and Behavior, “A reflex is an involuntary response to a stimulus and the entire physiological process activating it.”
The transition from primitive reflex to postural control is not automatic. As certain movements are practiced over and over, the movements mature and “integrate” the primitive responses. In our LifeWays training we learned about the Triune Brain, wherein each level represents a stage in evolution. In the brain stem, the point of the upside-down pyramid is where sensory stimulation occurs and the impulse radiates upward/outward. Primitive reflexes here are involuntary and this is considered the reptilian brain. Postural reflexes are part of the next level of evolution taking place in the midbrain, the undeveloped mammalian brain. The third is the neocortex, the most advanced and complex. Postural reflexes depend on the integration of primitive reflexes – one builds on the other. To survive, a baby is given an essential set of primitive reflexes. I like to think of these as the baby’s physical guardian angel. These helpful guardian angels of the physical body are not meant to stick around after 6 to 12 months of life. But sometimes they do. This is called a structural weakness or an immature central nervous system (CNS) and it can have major implications in a child’s learning, behavior, and future coping with ordinary life. Retained reflexes and a poorly developed sense of space can be a result of not enough self movement. The good news is that with proper motor function training therapy, the neurological pathways can be strengthened