What Parents Need to Know About Newborn Reflexes

Newborns are born with natural involuntary instincts called reflexes. Similar to the kind you notice when the doctor hits your knee with the hammer during a physical.

Key takeaways:
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    Newborns are born with natural involuntary instincts called reflexes.
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    Reflexes are normal responses and appropriate for growth and development.
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    Reflexes are natural and intended to help newborns survive.
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    Healthcare providers use these reflexes to test the nervous system for issues.
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    Newborn reflexes disappear within the first several months of life.
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    Some reflexes that are present in newborns continue into adulthood.

However, newborns' reflexes are different from those that appear in adults. Their purpose is to help newborns survive in the first few weeks and disappear as babies grow.

Why do newborns need reflexes?

Newborn reflexes are involuntary muscle responses to external stimulation. In other words, when specific actions happen near or to your baby, it causes them to react automatically. These are normal responses and are appropriate for growth and development. If newborns do not respond appropriately, there is concern about their development.

These reflexes are natural and intended to help newborns survive. Many reflexes begin before birth as the brain, and nervous system develop. Others only occur during specific periods of development.

Types of newborn reflexes

Moro (startle) reflex

The Moro or startle reflex occurs when your baby hears a loud sound, or there is a sudden movement. As a result, the baby's head falls back, they extend their arms and legs, pull them in close, and begin crying. This can also happen if the baby's head is unsupported and falls back suddenly.

Rooting reflex

The rooting reflex helps your baby find food during feedings. It enables the baby to find the breast or bottle to begin feeding. The reflex occurs when the baby's mouth or cheek is lightly stroked. The baby will turn its head toward the stroking, open its mouth, and begin sucking. If the baby does not find the breast or bottle, they may move around in search of it, hence the name 'rooting'.

Suck reflex

After rooting, the baby is ready for feeding. Touching the roof of the baby's mouth triggers the sucking reflex. This is a natural reflex; however, it does take practice. Newborns have to practice feeding, breathing, and sucking altogether.

This reflex starts to develop at 32 weeks gestation. It reaches full development at 36 weeks. Premature babies may be unable to suck or have weak sucking as they've not had enough gestation time to develop fully. Babies have a related reflex, the hand-to-mouth reflex, in which they suck on their hands or fingers. This can be seen in the womb and often after birth.

Tonic reflex

When your baby is lying on their back, turning their head to one side causes the arm on the same side to extend out, and the opposite arm folds in. This is also called the fencing position. Tonic reflex is necessary for posture, gross and fine motor movements, and other functions that develop later.

Babinski reflex

Stroking the sole of the baby's foot will cause the big toe to extend back and the other toes to spread out like a fan. This reflex is normal in infants but can show nervous system problems in older children or adults.

Step reflex

When a baby is held in a standing position with their feet on a surface, they will appear to walk lightly. This is a normal reflex; however, young infants have not developed the ability to bear weight and walk.

Grasp reflex

Palmar reflex. If you place a finger or object in the infant's open palm, they will close their fingers around it and grab it. A newborn will have a tight grasp and can often be nearly lifted by grasping your fingers with both hands.

Plantar reflex. If you place a finger or small object under the toes of an infant, they will curl their toes around it as if to grab on.

Parachute reflex

Parachute reflex happens in older infants. Holding the baby upright and turning quickly as if falling, the baby will throw their arms out to break their fall.

Why are these reflexes important for babies?

Newborn reflexes are involuntary signs that the nervous system is functioning correctly. As your baby ages, these reflexes will fade out, and new voluntary reflexes will take over. Until then, these reflexes, and others, work to keep your baby safe.

Healthcare providers use these reflexes to test the nervous system for issues. Unusual responses show providers that health issues could be under the surface. These reflexes can also reappear later in life if there is damage to the nervous system. These signs alert providers to look for brain or nervous system injuries or problems.

What do these reflexes mean?

Assessing newborn reflexes shows your healthcare provider that your infant is healthy. Your provider will perform specific tests for each reflex to ensure no underlying health problems. These tests are repeated at physicals until the reflexes disappear.

When do the reflexes disappear?

Most newborn reflexes disappear within the first several months of life. Each baby is different and grows at a different rate, so reflexes will change differently. All newborn reflexes should be gone by your baby's first birthday.

Reflex
Present at
Reflexes based on full-term pregnancy. Preterm or premature infants have different expectations.
Disappears
Approximate timeframes.
Moro34-36 weeks 2 months
Rooting 38-40 weeks gestation4 months
Suck36 weeks gestation3 months
Tonic38 weeks gestation6 months
Babinski36 weeks gestation12 months
Step38 weeks gestation3 months
Grasp: Palmar38 weeks gestation6 months
Grasp: Plantar38 weeks gestation9 months
Parachute8-9 months Continues throughout life

Reflexes that last into adulthood

Some reflexes that are present in newborns continue into adulthood. You may not have even known they are reflexes.

Blink reflex: blinking when your eye is touched or there is a sudden bright light.

Yawn reflex: your body's way of taking in more oxygen.

Sneeze reflex: response to irritation in the nasal passages.

Gag reflex: gagging when there is stimulation in the back of the throat or mouth intended to prevent choking.

Cough reflex: response to stimulation in your airway.

Newborns have involuntary movements called reflexes. These reflexes are natural and intended for survival. Most are temporary and will disappear as intentional skills begin to develop. Healthcare providers assess newborn reflexes at wellness visits to monitor growth and development.