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Primitive Reflex Patterns

What are they?

Primitive reflex patterns are a series of movements that neonates, infants, and young children progress through as they develop physically. These movement patterns are genetically encoded and begin in the womb once the baby has developed its head and trunk. Every baby goes through this developmental pattern in the same order and within the same window of time unless their development is impaired or gets "stuck". 

Why are they important?

In the womb, these patterns help develop the baby's ability to get through the birth canal to be born. They also develop the vestibular (balance) system, auditory and visual systems, and bilaterality-the ability to use both sides of the body. 

Once a child is born, these patterns enable the first gasp of air, the ability to push their body up, roll over, crawl, creep, and walk. These are all the things we can see. However, PRPs also build pathways in the brain during each stage, organizing the cerebellum and effectively mapping out the proprioceptive auditory, visual, and vestibular pathways. 

If a pattern does not emerge on time, develop fully, or integrate completely, there can be lasting effects in gross and fine motor coordination, emotional regulation, sensory integration, balance, proprioception, visual and auditory processing, speech production, cognition, and executive function. Because they occur in a sequence, one retained reflex will impact every pattern that comes after it. 

The brain develops in a particular order, beginning with the cerebellum and working upward. The cerebellum regulates gross and fine motor movement but is also highly involved in speech. If their cerebellum is not completed organized, it will impact cognitive processes at the higher levels including working memory, long-term memory, oral language, processing speed, and executive function. Executive function is a group of cognitive skills including organizing, planning, attention, focus, initiation, impulse control, and self-regulation. These skills are regulated primarily in the pre-frontal cortex. This area, located right behind your forehead, is the last to develop and is not fully matured until our mid-20's. 

What causes retained reflexes? 

There are a few different things that can cause retained reflexes. A traumatic pregnancy or birth, including C-section, can be a trigger. Infections in the mother or infant appear to trigger a survival response as well.  Deficiencies in certain vitamins such as folate or high levels of glutamates may be involved. Car accidents, neglect, poor nutrition, abuse, or any other kind of physical or emotional trauma may be triggers. And, sometimes, there doesn't seem to be an obvious answer. 

Reflex patterns are supposed to emerge at a specific time, mature, and then integrate. Integrate doesn't mean they go away completely; it just means they are not dominant now. At any time, our brains can call on those reflexes to help up during times of stress, fear, or physical injury. If a reflex does not integrate completely, it is referred to as a retained reflex

The two reflexes that have the most pervasive effect on neurodevelopment are the Moro and the Fear Paralysis reflexes. The Moro reflex, also known as the "startle reflex" in infants becomes the Fight or Flight response around 2 months of age. The Fear Paralysis Reflex is our "deer in the headlights" response to danger and is a permanent part of our survival toolbox. If either or both of these reflexes is triggered and remains active, every reflex following the Moro will be impacted. Please see the page on Moro and Fear Paralysis for more information. 

Other reflex patterns create core stability, pattern out the auditory and visual systems, impact a child's gait, hip stability, foot placement during walking, enable self-regulation, and develop sensory integration and differentiation. 

Retained reflexes can have a significant impact on gross motor skills, proper gait, core strength, stamina, isolation of individual motor movements, sitting posture, speech development, reading, and more. Please review the individual reflex patterns for more information. 

Reflex patterns can be assessed and integrated through a series of very specific but simple movements. In my practice, once I've assessed a child and developed a treatment plan, I generally work with a child and parent once per week. Parents are then given 15-30 minutes of simple movements to do at home every day. These movements stimulate the brain to move to the next pattern of development. 

I am often asked how long this kind of program lasts. This varies widely depending on the child, how impacted they are, and how consistent the movement practice is at home. I have worked with clients as little as three months and others take over a year. Children with significant birth trauma, severe developmental delay, stroke history, or cerebral palsy tend to remain in the program the longest because the nervous system is literally being built from scratch. 

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