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How Newborn Reflexes Help Babies Survive

Newborn Reflexes

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Updated May 16, 2014

Startle Reflex in the Newborn

This baby is showing the startle reflex.

Photo © H. Snow
See also: What a Newborn Baby Really Looks Like

Your newborn baby is an amazing creature. The many reflexes he or she is born with help transition them to life and learn what they need to survive. Here are some of these reflexes to help you get to know your baby better:

Moro Reflex: When you fail to support or hold the neck and head, the arms of your baby will thrust outward and then seem to embrace them selves as their fingers curl. This reflex disappears at about 2 months of age. It is also known as the startle reflex.

Palmar Grasp: When you touch the palm of your baby's hand, the fingers will curl around and cling to your finger or an object. This is a good reflex to take advantage of with other children, to allow the baby to "hold" their hand. This reflex also makes it difficult to obtain handprints until it disappears at about 6 months.

Plantar Grasp: This reflex occurs when you stroke the sole of your baby's foot, his toes will spread open, and the foot will turn slightly inward. It is also known as the Babinski reflex. This reflex is fun to watch. By the end of the first year this reflex is usually gone.

Sucking: While you may not believe this to be reflexive, it is. This ensures that the baby will nurse on a breast or bottle to be fed and occurs when something is placed in the baby's mouth. It is slowly replaced by voluntary sucking around 2 months of age.

Rooting Reflex: When you stroke your baby's cheek she will turn towards you, usually looking for food. This is very useful when learning to breastfeed your baby. This reflex is gone by about 4 months. You may also notice this occurs when the baby accidentally brushes her own face with her hands. It can sometimes be a source of frustration if your baby flails her arms during feedings. Simply using a blanket to pin her arms closer to her body during feeding may help.

Stepping Reflex: If you take your baby and place his feet on a flat surface he will "walk" by placing one foot in front of the other. This isn't really walking and will disappear by about 4 months of age.

Tonic Neck Reflex: This is also called the fencing reflex, because of the position the baby assumes. When you lay your baby on her back, and her head turns to one side she will extend her arm and leg on that side while the opposite arm and leg bend, assuming a "fencing" position. This reflex is present only until about the 4th month.

Swimming: If you were to put a baby under six months of age in water, they would move their arms and legs while holding their breath. This is why some families believe in swim training for very little babies. It is not recommended for you to test this reflex at home for obvious safety reasons.

Your baby will have his or her reflexes tested shortly after birth. Absence or weak reflexes can be caused by birth trauma, medications used, illness, etc. Talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns about your baby reflexes or ask them to show you during a newborn exam the amazing feats of your new baby.

Readers Respond: What surprised you most about how your baby looked at birth?

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