“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
“Due to the resiliency of children, we often do not see the full results of the overwhelm we create for them until they are older,” says Cynthia Aldinger, LifeWays founder and executive director.
When a baby is born, what is its first movement? We feel its warmth from the body, its movement of limbs, and what everyone waits for – baby’s first breath. The cry. What a relief it is to hear the baby’s first cry – the first inhalation and exhalation of the Earth’s air. There is a primitive reflex considered responsible for this first movement, the drawing in of air – it’s the Moro Reflex. This most primitive reflex, the Moro, develops in utero at nine to twelve weeks. In Goddard’s book, she states the first primitive reflex is triggered by a sudden change to the infant’s head position, often a backward tilt of 30 degrees. Goddard says the infant responds by opening its arms from the core of their body, extends the arms and fingers, all while taking a deep breath in and holding it. The infant then closes its core by flexing the limbs, making fists and exhaling – often crying. Once embraced, the infant calms down and finds comfort by hugging a person or object. Older infants also need to have time on the floor horizontally, which helps to develop their will. They need to come to movement on their own and not be placed in Bumbo seats, walkers, infant rockers or be entertained by overstimulating standing toys with lots of bright lights, colors, and sounds.
Observations of a Retained Moro Reflex
Children who retain the Moro Reflex react first and think afterwards. You may observe a defensive body posture and know they are experiencing a few or all of the following: increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid shallow breathing, flushing of the skin, anger, and distress.
The primitive Moro Reflex (sometimes called the Moro Embrace) should naturally integrate and no longer be necessary by 2 to 4 months of age. If the Moro is retained into school-age years, parents and teacher will often see children in constant “flight or fight” – afraid to join in circle time, and observing the group but not joining in the world. You could say they are stuck inside themselves and having trouble connecting to the world around them. Exercises that integrate a retained Moro Reflex include: catching balls, laying on a large exercise ball and having to hold it tight while someone tugs on it, hugging mom and dad, siblings and/or stuffed animals. At minor levels of retention, observing an eye blink while playing catch or while playing hand clapping games is an indicator of a retained Moro, even in adults. Once the Moro is integrated, it is thought to transform into the adult startle response, the Strauss Reflex. Adult responses once inhibited should lie dormant only to be awakened in situations of extreme danger.
Helping the Child with Retained Moro
The most helpful thing a teacher can do for a child who has a retained Moro Reflex is to make the classroom environment as non-threatening as possible because the child is likely to overreact to all stimuli. Keep noise level to a minimum – including the teacher’s own voice – and reduce non-essential movement during teaching. Seating a child outside of the hustle and bustle in a quieter location is helpful so that the busyness of the classroom is located outside their field of vision. A child with Moro can find it difficult to fit into a group and often has a fragile self-esteem. Teachers who are aware and understanding of this can greatly improve the child’s confidence in a quiet way that doesn’t single the child out.
Central Nervous System
As humans, our ideal bodily state is a non-alarm state in what is called the parasympathetic system. It is responsible for normalizing body functions (rest, digest, healing) and supports and ensures long-term growth and development. Infant reflexes exist to protect the child by activating specific motor responses to certain stimuli in the brain stem. There are four basic conditions that can cause primary infant motor reflexes to dysfunction: congenital disorders, disease, birth, physical or emotional trauma, and prolonged intermittent or chronic stress. Each of these conditions can cause the central nervous system (CNS), sensory, or motor systems to become compromised. Also, when these four conditions occur after the primitive reflexes are integrated, this can trigger reflexes to resurface for survival reasons. According to Goddard, this is an adaptive strategy to ensure our survival, but when a primary infant reflex resurfaces, it usually exists in a dysfunctional way. During chronic, low-level trauma, the sympathetic nervous system can dominate and impede the normal function of the parasympathetic system which can cause a child to remain in flight/fight heightened awareness. This affects the child’s emotional stability and behavior.
Sympathetic Dominance in Early Childhood
During the first two years of life, if sympathetic dominance exists, it is now known to disrupt the maturation of the developing reflex system. Once the reflexes are integrated and the sympathetic system becomes dominant, previously integrated reflexes may resurface. Prolonged stress has the potential to compromise the integration and maturation of primary infant reflexes. The child will be unable to effectively handle even a normal range of trauma and stress and will remain in a hyper-aroused state.
Children with these sensory systems that are challenged often appear emotionally disregulated because their CNS is actually receiving a hypoactive or hyperactive signal. These hyperactive sensory children have trouble filtering sensations and may feel like a scratch is a deep cut, can have low muscle tone, tend to withdraw protectively and are sometimes too fearful to risk learning new things. The hypoactive sensory child needs extra stimulation to feel anything and may not react to a deep cut like it is more than a scratch. These children can become thrill seekers, just to get the stimulation their sensory system needs to feel anything. They need high stimulation and their system doesn’t engage the protections properly.
Resurfacing of Primitive Reflex in Survival Situation
The primitive reflexes are for protection and survival and remain ready to protect us in an emergency. A child experiencing a sensory defensive reaction can result from this hyper-alert state where everything is perceived to be too loud, too bright, too fast, too tight. It can be uncomfortable to be in the body, to make certain movements and the child will become fatigued quickly and feel emotionally disregulated. The child who seems always fearful, scared, and clinging to mother; perhaps expressing discomfort by crying, or verbally; or won’t let mom out of her sight could be experiencing an acute situation or is perhaps suffering from lack of parasympathetic rest in his/her system. It would be helpful for teachers and caregivers to watch closely and discuss with the parent whether the child may benefit from cranial sacral treatments that calm the sympathetic nervous system. It would be helpful for teachers to learn the behavioral and movement indicators that suggest the help of Occupational Therapy.
Asymmetrical Tonic Reflex (ATNR)
This reflex appears in utero until about six months of life. It facilitates the “kick” in the belly and is responsible for muscle tone and vestibular stimulation providing continuous motion which stimulates balance and increases neural connections. It should be fully established by the time the infant is to be born so it can participate in the birth process, in which it assists and is actually strengthened. Integration should be at about six months of life and depends on prior integration of the foundational Moro Reflex (scaffolding like a spiral). If the Moro is not integrated, it makes it much more difficult for the ATNR and following reflexes to integrate, as they work together in a spiral so the movement is always available when needed. The trigger that activates this is the baby’s reflexive head turning to the side and extension of the arms and legs of the same side which causes the the limbs on the opposite side to flex. The ATNR reflex supports transitional movements like turning from back to front, vice versa, and asymmetrical cross-lateral motor coordination of the core and limbs.
How Retained ATNR Shows in Movement
It is impossible to crawl on the stomach with a fluent cross-pattern movement if the ATNR persists. A child might find his balance insecure if ATNR is retained when learning how to walk. During the school years, when not integrated, a student may turn his/her head to look to the side and the arm comes out with it, “hitting” someone they are standing next to. You can imagine the social implications and classroom management issues when this retained reflex is unintegrated. It can make the child a target for teasing, as the child often appears awkward and clumsy. These reflex actions are often confused with a behavioral issue. This foundational reflex’s integration is vitally important for learning and future academics because of its connection with the development of multiple cognitive systems: auditory, visual, auditory perception, space and time orientation, processing, and memory. The child with active ATNR needs extra space to write and turns the page 90 degrees to be more comfortable. Retained ATNR makes it difficult to cross the midline, one of the most prevalent problems in school.
Fear Paralysis Reflex (FPR)
The Feal Paralysis Reflex is activated during a threat alarm-state to the sympathetic nervous system to ensure short-term protection and survival. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is thought to be caused by the activation of the FPR. Like a deer in the headlights, paralyzed by fear, causing holding of breath and shutting down of the blood vessels in an immediate motor paralysis.
An exercise to reduce a person’s retained FPR is to have them lay on the floor, then using your hands, suddenly slap the soles of their feet in a rhythmic “1, 2, cha, cha, cha” going up to the knees and repeat “1, 2, cha, cha, cha.” Move to the hip bones, the underside of the arms, and the clavicle last. If FPR is active, the eyes will blink (as in the Moro Reflex). The paleness or redness of the skin is also an important factor to look for when a child is under stress. A person with Moro Reflex retention is already in a heightened state of awareness and often coincides with an active FPR.
Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)
The Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex appears during the thirteenth week in utero and continues to develop after birth. It is most active between six and ten months as the child is learning to crawl and walk. Parents can look for the differentiation between the neck, core, and limbs that signals integration into the whole body at about the tenth month. STNR is a postural reflex, the second level (midbrain), and it helps quiet the body for visual and auditory perception. It is important in binocular and binaural hearing and is needed for postural control and fine-motor activities as well as spatial relations, boundaries, and control of impulse behavior. In school, you might see a child sitting on one leg or sitting in the W position. This is a sign of non-integration of the STNR, along with immature TLR and ATNR.
Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR)
This reflex is thought to emerge toward the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. TLR forwards and backwards takes a leading role how the systems in the body interplay. The baby’s head extending into the birth canal is thought to fully activate the reflex and that is the infant’s only way of reacting to gravity. If the reflex is still active as a toddler, then the head righting reflexes, which are essential to sit and stand, will be impaired and balance affected while in an upright position. Any movement of the head forwards or backwards will result in reflexive flexion or extension of the limbs. In school, desks that are at an incline, slanted toward the student, are very helpful for a child showing this retained reflex.
Reflex Stimulation/Integration Program
My daughter and I have been working with a cluster of Musgatova Movement Program (MNRI) reflex exercises for about six months. We don’t know exactly why she retained the primitive Moro, whether it was hereditary, congenital, in utero, Pitocin-induced birth after my water broke, or as a small child hitting her head – resulting in a cranial compression that blocked her neuropathways. She’s been given biodynamic osteopathic cranial sacral treatments, Musgatova method reflex movement therapy, chiropractic, and is currently receiving Therapeutic Eurythmy as prescribed by her anthroposophical pediatrician.
Auditory Integration Training (AIT)
Another program we utilized recently is called Auditory Integration Training (AIT). It uses a set of headphones with randomized music and tones to activate a reflex we had not exercised in the Musgatova Program (MNRI). The Staepadeus Reflex is the smallest muscle in the inner ear. This reflex is thought to integrate inversely as the Moro Reflex is integrating. This means that if the Moro is active in a person, that tiny muscle in the inner ear may or may not have integrated. For instance, if the Moro had never completely integrated, the Staepadeus may not have completed integration in the inner ear. This would make a person’s hearing very sensitive and he or she would not be able to modulate sounds like a person whose Moro was fully integrated.
After listening to 30 minutes of music, three hours apart for ten days, the small muscle is stimulated to the degree that it strengthens and integrates. We took notes on a session log and the sessions became more and more enjoyable as the music changed and was very relaxing for the listener. It is thought the results and improvements should continue to be observable four to six months after the program is completed.
Because of my situation with my child and resulting research into reflexes and movement, I am passionate about identifying early abnormal movement patterns. I believe it is important to help parents understand that reflexive motor responses need to be integrated to support healthy growth and development. It is scary for a parent when someone says there may be something wrong with his or her child. I am grateful to everyone who has had the initiative to care and inform me of observations in my child that have turned out to be very real problems for her. We will see how the motor program, therapeutic eurythmy, and AIT improve my daughter’s school experience in the months ahead. My child is already thriving in fourth grade, loves school and despite her struggles with reflex retention, she’s learning that life is good, beautiful and true in a deep and lasting way.
Rose Reis-Jackson is a Lifeways graduate, former Kindergarten Assistant, and substitute teacher/parent at Great Oak School in Tomball, TX. She initiated a Waldorf-inspired Forest Garden Playgroup in Houston and enjoys writing and photography. She is a fifth-generation Californian, former Silicon Valley Recruiter, and would love to live in a National Park someday. Some of her photography can be viewed at www.reisjackson.com