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Understanding Primitive Reflexes Impact on Child Development

February 14, 2023

Kristen lectured about 400 people on primitive reflexes in February. Here is some of the information that was shared.

Primitive reflexes have become somewhat of a “hot topic” lately. If you do an internet search on “primitive reflexes”, you get over 1 million hits! As with anything, this is a lot of good information and some misleading information. You may see promises from programs that will integrate your child’s primitive reflexes, and all their problems will disappear.  

No Magic Wand

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic wand that gets waved when primitive reflexes integrate… but a lot of positive changes can occur if primitive reflex integration is addressed within the context of an occupational therapy treatment session addressing sensory processing, self-regulation, motor skills, and self-help skills.

What are reflexes?

Reflexes are automatic movements that our body does without thinking about it. Think about blinking when something is coming at your face-you don’t think about that-your body just do it.  

What are primitive reflexes?

Primitive reflexes are “tools” that we are born with. They are reflexive movements that assist the infant in taking its first breath and making its first movements. Primitive reflexes are elicited when there is a movement in the head position, such as when a child turns their head or looks up. Primitive reflexes “stick around” until the child can make voluntary movements and no longer needs the reflexive movements. When they are no longer elicited they are considered integrated.

How do they integrate naturally?

  • Through developmental movements such as sitting, crawling, and walking
  • Developing increased strength and head control during tummy time, rolling, and crawling

When primitive reflexes do not integrate, what can happen?

Retained (not integrated) primitive reflexes can interfere with the development of more mature, voluntary movement patterns, including:

  • Delays in gross motor skills-Balance and moving safely through the environment
  • Sensory sensitivity-over responds to sounds, touch, light, etc
  • Bilateral coordination – the ability to coordinate arms and legs
  • Delays in fine motor skills, such as handwriting and manipulation of small objects
  • Learning – challenges sitting and attending in class
  • Social skills – high anxiety and decreased self-confidence
  • Decreased language and communication skills

Why would a primitive reflex NOT integrate naturally?

There is no definitive answer to WHY a primitive reflex may not integrate naturally. There are lots of reasons which have been found to predispose a child to have retained primitive reflexes. These can start as early as pregnancy and continue into childhood; for example, children of mothers that used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy are at increased risk. Children that avoid tummy time or skip crawling or at increased risk. Additionally, if a child is placed in “containers’ (car seats, swings, jumparoo) for the majority of their waking hours, they are unable to participate in natural movement-based activities resulting in delayed milestones and potentially retained primitive reflexes.

In some situations, it is unclear why primitive reflexes are retained. There is no “fault” to have, no blame to give. Only knowledge and the tools to help. At Connect Pediatric Therapy, we test primitive reflexes as part of our comprehensive occupational therapy evaluation. If you have concerns about your child’s development or think your child may have retained primitive reflexes, please, contact Connect Pediatric Therapy at 402-413-1356 to schedule a free consultation. Sign up for our email newsletter to learn how pediatric occupational therapy can help your children.


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