What are Primitive Reflexes?

Primitive reflexes are innate movements or reactions that present after birth. They are involuntary motor responses that originate from the brain stem and exist to ensure survival. Primitive reflexes serve as foundational movements and as the body develops, they naturally fade away and are replaced by new reflexes.

The process of one reflex fading and another reflex taking its place is also known as “reflex integration”. Reflex integration is essential for the body to learn basic autonomic movements (movements your body does automatically) in order to develop neurological maturity and voluntary movements (movements you consciously tell your body to do). Reflexes that are not present or integrated interrupt the development of movement patterns and can be an indicator for developmental delay.

Primitive Reflexes ​

What does Primitive reflexes have to do with Occupational Therapy?

Reflexes that do not integrate are known as “retained reflexes”. Occupational Therapist can assess the way children move to test for any retain reflexes. Occupational Therapist then provide exercises and movements that the child and parent can do during their sessions and at home to integrate the retained reflexes.

Occupational Therapy

Example of Reflexes

Palmar Grasp Reflex

Remember that moment when you put your finger in a baby’s hand and they squeeze their fingers tight around yours? Although it is very adorable, that is in fact a primitive reflex. That reflex is known as the Palmar Grasp reflex. The Palmar Grasp Reflex exists as a foundational skill when developing the ability to hold objects. When this reflex is retained their development of voluntary movements is disrupted. 

Children with this retained reflex are observed to struggle to pick up objects or manipulate items in their hands. At times, children with this retained relax may also keep their hands clenched. These involuntary movements can impact fine motor skills and engagement in all activities of daily living. Occupational Therapists can intervene by integrating the movement and developing their voluntary control. Occupational Therapists work with the child and parent to empower them with the right program and information to achieve their therapy goals.

Example of Reflexes

Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)

When a baby is laying on its back you may often find them turning their head to a side and their arm extends while the other curls in. That movement is called the ATNR reflex otherwise known as the “fencing reflex”. This reflex is important for muscle development and hand-eye coordination. When this reflex is retained it can inhibit play or reaching as a child’s head may naturally turn when their arm extends. It has also been associated with difficulties in knowing left from right which impact complex gross motor skills and coordination. One Occupational Therapist worked with a client whose ATNR reflex was inhibiting their ability to use his iPad to communicate.

Those are just two examples of reflexes and how they impact function and everyday life. All therapists at Centre of Movement are trained in identifying and determining the appropriate intervention for retained reflexes. If you would like to learn more about primitive reflexes feel free to ask your Occupational Therapist or contact the clinic for more information.

Primitive Reflexes ​

"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much"

– Helen Keller

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