The Importance of Reflexes in Developmental Delays

by Sally Goddard Blythe

Ever wonder why babies startle, grasp your finger or turn their heads toward an out-stretched arm? These behaviors are primitive reflexes that emerge as early as nine weeks in utero, and are fully present at birth. Primitive reflexes are automatic movements, executed without thinking. They assist in the birthing process, are essential for the infant‘s survival in the first months of life, and provide training for many later skills.

Primitive reflexes are considered "aberrant," however, if they remain active beyond age 6 - 12 months. They should be inhibited by the brain, allowing more sophisticated neural structures to develop. The continued presence of any of twelve primitive and postural reflexes is a sign of central nervous system (CNS) immaturity, which can have a profound impact upon a child‘s development, learning and behavior.

What do reflexes have to do with learning and behavior?

Motor control lays the foundation for learning and self control. We acquire new skills by moving our bodies intentionally. To track visually left to right, to shape consonants in the mouth, and to form letters, we need to have intentional control of the muscles involved. When those muscles obey an unconscious reflex instead of responding to our intention, then the activity is confusing and cannot become an automatic learned skill.

Academic learning depends upon the automization of basic skills at a physical level. If a child fails to develop this automatic motor control, a teacher might observe such symptoms as reversals in reading and writing, misarticulations, poor impulse control, difficulty reading body language, or unsatisfactory peer relationships, despite good intelligence. Change is unlikely unless the underlying neuro-developmental problem is addressed.

What are some of the reflexes?

Three reflexes are so important in children with developmental problems that they deserve special attention. These are the Moro, Palmar and Asymmetrical Tonic Neck reflex (ATNR). These and others, their development and long term effects are elaborated upon in my book, A Teacher‘s Window into the Child‘s Mind: And Papers from the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology.A Teacher’s Window Into The Child’s Mind.

How are aberrant reflexes diagnosed and treated?

The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology (INPP), Chester, UK has devised a protocol of standard neurological tests to demonstrate the presence or absence of primitive reflexes. On the basis of the child’s reflex profile, the Institute prescribes a daily five to ten minute home program of reflex stimulation or inhibition exercises, spanning a period of 9 to 12 months. Fortunately, research shows that the "wiring" of the CNS is changeable, particularly in the early years. Follow-up studies confirm progress in all areas of physical, academic and behavioral development.

Sally Goddard Blythe is a researcher and therapist at The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology (INPP) in Chester, UK. Interventions such as occupational therapy, optometry, sensory integration training, and Brain Gym can help to inhibit aberrant reflexes. For more information about reflexes and for training programs in the specific techniques used at INPP, visit the INPP website at

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 6, Number 4 - Spring, 2001]

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