A reflex is an involuntary motor response to a sensory stimulus. For example when a light shines into your eyes, your pupils should get smaller very quickly, or when there is a loud, sudden, unexpected sound nearby, you startle. Reflexes perform many jobs for our central nervous system. They protect us from danger, they help us move our body, they help us see, etc. Reflexes begin before we are born, and they even help us through the process of making our way out of our mother’s body. Reflexes are VERY important.
Reflexes are in the lower regions of the brain—most of them in the medulla oblongata and the pons. Because reflexes are involuntary responses, they should be instant. We don’t take time to think about how we will respond, it just happens automatically. We sometimes call these responses the “fight or flight” system.
Some reflexes have specific tasks for a limited period of time. Once that particular developmental stage has passed, the reflex should “integrate” and appear to no longer be present. In reality, the reflex is present, but in its appropriate function serves as a foundation for future reflexes.
One such reflex is the Babinski reflex. This reflex in the feet should be present in newborns. When the bottom of the foot is stroked, the feet curl toward the midline, the big toe goes up and the other toes fan out. As an infant, this reflex aids in belly crawling as babies push off with that big toes and propel themselves forward. By 12-18 months of age, the Babinski should integrate and serve as the foundation for the Plantar reflex. This reflex is exhibited when the toes curl under and grasp the ground beneath them. This integration of Babinski to Plantar aids us as we begin to walk. It is very difficult to walk with your toes flying up, but your toes grasping the ground beneath you, helps you with balance as you take those first steps. When the Babinski reflex is not appropriately integrated, it can be seen with rotation in the hips, poor gait, shuffling feet, excessive wear on the inner or outer soles of the shoes and other areas.
Another reflex that is present in infants that should be integrated as we grow, is the Moro reflex. In newborns, the Moro reflex response occurs when they hear loud, unexpected sounds. The hands and arms go out, the back arches slightly and the head tilts back. This reflex aids us in protection as infants. This reflex should also integrate and be the foundation for the Startle reflex as we grow. If the Moro is retained, this can create a dangerous situation. Imagine a person with a retained Moro reflex and how they would respond when driving a car—then someone honks a horn at them or an ambulance siren is suddenly heard. Throwing your hands in the air may save you as an infant, but endanger you as an adult.
These are just two of hundreds (REALLY!) of reflexes that should serve us in our lifetime. The progression or “integration” of reflexes is a natural process that can proceed effortlessly or sometimes be interrupted. When that process doesn’t go smoothly, we might see negative behaviors that seem uncontrollable. Sometimes we see children (and even adults) struggling with movements that should be simple.
The exciting news is that these reflexes can be re-patterned to the brain. We can illustrate to the brain through simple movements how a reflex should be functioning. Sometimes this re-patterning can take a few minutes, sometimes it can take months or longer. The integration process is hands-on, very specific and very rewarding. Integration of reflexes, dependent upon the specific needs of a child, can be part of a Parents With Purpose program.