Reflexes at Birth

Although your baby may appear to be fragile and defenseless, there are some built-in protective reflexes present at birth. Healthy newborns show certain reflexes that are checked for by your healthcare team. These reflexes are automatic responses to certain stimuli and help identify normal brain and nerve activity. Most of these newborn reflexes will disappear after a few months for some newborns, but can last as long as a year for others.

Some of the reflexes listed below are spontaneous movements that occur as part of the baby’s everyday usual activity. Others are responses to certain actions.

Moro Reflex

The Moro reflex can be the scariest for new parents. It is often called the startle reflex and occurs when there is a sudden movement or loud noise. The baby will throw back his head, fling his arms and legs out and then quickly draw them in towards the chest. He will then let out a cry. Even a baby’s own cry may elicit this response. When your baby is picked up, he may startle. You are not doing anything wrong. This is a natural, healthy response and will disappear over time.

Rooting Reflex

This reflex begins when the baby’s cheek or corner of the baby’s mouth is lightly stroked or touched. The baby will turn his head and open his mouth wide to follow or “root” in the direction of the stroking. This response helps the baby search for the breast or bottle so that he can eat. This is also a feeding cue.

Sucking Reflex

When the roof of the baby’s mouth is touched, the baby will begin to suck. This reflex begins and can be seen on sonogram at 32 weeks of pregnancy. It is not fully developed until 36 weeks of pregnancy. That is why premature babies may have a weak or immature sucking ability.

It is very noticeable, once you are home, that babies have a hand to mouth reflex. This action goes along with rooting and sucking reflex.

Grasp Reflex

There is nothing better than when you place your finger in your baby’s hand and he holds on tight. What a joy! Stroking or touching the palm of your baby’s hand will automatically make him clench his fist. This reflex is a guard against falling and thought to enable the baby to hang on to his mother. It lasts only a few months and is actually quite strong in premature babies.

Babinski Reflex

When the sole of the foot is stroked, the baby’s big toe bends back toward the top of the foot, the foot turns inward and the other toes fan out. This is a normal reflex and lasts up to 2 years of life. It is thought that this response is also protective to insure against falling.

Step Reflex

You may observe your healthcare provider pick up your baby under the arms with the feet touching a flat surface. He will automatically put one foot in front of the other as if he were walking. This reflex is present at birth, disappears and then comes back when your child is ready for those first real steps on his own.

Withdrawal Reflex

You will notice this response when blood is taken from your baby’s heel. It is a protective response against pain. The leg and foot will jerk backwards and the opposite leg and foot will push forward.

Tonic Neck Reflex

If you lie your baby on his back, you will notice the head turn to the side. His one arm will stretch out in the same direction as that of the baby’s head. The other arm flexes or bends up. This is often called the “fencing” position.

You will be amazed at the resilience of your new baby. All the reflexes that you notice – a yawn, a wince, a jerk or the grasp of your finger – are part of your baby’s built-in survival responses at birth.