Baby reflexes you’ve probably never heard of

21 August 2017 | By

Babies never cease to fascinate me! From their tiny facial expressions, to the little (and sometimes big!) sounds they make, to the flailing of their arms and legs… ❤️

About the flailing – newborns don’t actually have a lot of intentional, voluntary movement. And they depend on us for everything. Fortunately however, babies do come equipped with some inbuilt survival skills = reflexes. There are some which stay around through adulthood, but many actually disappear during their first year.

See how many of these you’ve recognised through your own experience with babies – and how many you’ve never realised were baby reflexes!

Rooting reflex

One of the most basic baby survival instincts, to help them find their food source!

Trigger: When something strokes against baby’s cheek or near their mouth

Reaction: Baby turns toward where they were touched with their mouth open, starting to make sucking motions

When it’ll pass: ~3-4 months

Sucking reflex

Combined with the rooting reflex, this ensures baby gets the sustenance they need by helping them to feed.

Trigger: When something (e.g. breast, bottle, finger, dummy) touches the roof of baby’s mouth

Reaction: Lips close and the sucking begins!

When it’ll pass: After ~2-3 months, sucking becomes intentional rather than automatic/involuntary

Moro reflex / Startle reflex

An attempt at protecting themselves from harm – one theory is that the movements are to alert mum to quickly attend to them.

Sometimes, baby’s own cry can startle themselves and trigger this reflex!

Trigger: A loud or unfamiliar noise, sudden movements or a falling sensation (e.g. sit baby upright while supporting them, then suddenly lower them backwards a little)

Reaction: Baby’s arms will fling outwards with open hands and their legs will extend, before bringing their legs and arms (with clenched fists) back close to their body. This is usually accompanied by a surprised facial expression, and possibly even followed by crying.

When it’ll pass: ~2-4 months

If your baby tends to startle themselves awake while sleeping – try swaddling to keep them feeling secure and prevent any sudden movements.

Tongue-thrust reflex

Prevents choking, and is also an indicator that baby isn’t ready for solids yet.

Trigger: Touch an object, a spoon or your finger to the tip of baby’s tongue

Reaction: Baby’s tongue pushes forward and out, blocking the object from entering their mouth

When it’ll pass: ~4-6 months

Stepping reflex

Early preparation for eventual walking – babies already have instinctive knowledge about this action. 

Have you seen the viral video of a newborn “walking” out of the womb? It’s actually just the stepping reflex, which almost every newborn can exhibit!

Trigger: Hold your baby upright with their legs dangling and their feet resting on a flat surface

Reaction: Baby will lift one foot and put it in front of the other, before doing the same with their other foot, as if they’re “walking”

When it’ll pass: ~2-3 months

Palmar grasp reflex

This is definitely the cutest baby reflex! It helps foster interactions and to establish connections, particularly with their parents. It also prepares baby for voluntary grasping later on.

Baby’s grip can be strong enough to support their entire body weight! (BUT DON’T TRY THIS ONE)

Trigger: Lightly press a small object (or your finger) into the open palm of baby’s hand

Reaction: Baby’s fingers will curl around to make a fist and hold on to the object

When it’ll pass: ~3-6 months

If you need baby to release an object (or your hair!), don’t try prying their fingers, they’ll just hold on tighter! Instead, gently stroke the side of their palm or the back of their hand and they should release their grip.

Plantar grasp reflex

Some theories say this reflex comes from primate ancestors, who would use their feet for holding onto tree branches – but there hasn’t been any scientific confirmation of this link.

Trigger: Gently stroke the sole of baby’s foot, from heel to toe

Reaction: Toes curl to wrap around the stimulus

When it’ll pass: ~9 months – 1 year

Tonic neck reflex / Fencing reflex

There are different theories about the purpose of this reflex – some say it has a protective role (guarding themselves), others speculate that it’s preparing baby for voluntary reaching and focusing on what’s in front of them.

Trigger: Lie baby on their back with their head turned to one side

Reaction: The arm on the side they’re facing straightens and extends away, while the other arm bends at the elbow. This tends to look like a “fencing” position.

When it’ll pass: Appears sometime during the first 2 months, then passes around ~4-6 months

Parachute reflex / Superman reflex

Another protective reflex – a safety response in an attempt to steady themselves and prevent themselves from falling onto their face.

Trigger: When baby is held suspended over the floor facing downwards, then suddenly “dives” towards the ground.

Reaction: Baby extends their arms and spreads their hands, looking like they’re falling from a parachute or diving like Superman! (Hence the colloquial references)

When it’ll pass: Appears around ~6-8 months, when babies have greater motor control, then stays for life!

Truncal incurvation reflex / Galant reflex

Not sure what this reflex is for…but it makes babies look like they’re dancing!

Trigger: When baby is on their tummy and either side of their lower spine/back is stroked or tapped

Reaction: Baby twists to swing their hips towards the side that was stroked, kinda like dancing

When it’ll pass: ~4-6 months

Other reflexes appearing from birth and lasting into adulthood…

  • Blinking reflex: baby blinks their eyes when touched or when a bright light suddenly appears
  • Coughing reflex: baby coughs when their airway is stimulated
  • Gagging reflex: baby gags when the back of their mouth/throat is stimulated
  • Sneezing reflex: baby sneezes when their nasal passages are irritated
  • Withdrawal reflex: baby quickly turns their head away when an object is suddenly brought close to their face
  • Yawning reflex: baby yawns when their body requires more oxygen

How many of these did you already know about? Have you see any of these baby reflexes in action before?

Isabelle xx

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  1. My kids are no longer babies but I do home daycare and this list is very interesting. I remember learning about some of these while doing my ECE… thanks for the reminder.

  2. Interesting to know all these facts, soon I may need to remember all these baby reflexes, so thanks for sharing these important mother tips.

    xx Ashon

  3. Love this!!! I took a class when I was in college and we learned all of these and even then (before babies) I thought it was cool, now after two kids its still so amazing the way babies bodies work!

  4. I work with the peds population all the time and regularly have to check these reflexes to make sure that the babies are meeting their milestones.

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