Retained Infant Reflexes – their impact on success or failure in education

When a child is born, he leaves the protection and cushioning of the womb to enter an environment where he will be instantly bombarded by a multitude of sensory stimuli ranging from touch, sight, sounds, smells and tastes. If they are too strong or too sudden, he will react to them but this reaction is completely automatic – a reflex, and he will not understand the reaction.

In order to survive, the baby is equipped with a set of Primitive Reflexes designed to ensure immediate responses to this new environment and to his changing needs. Primitive Reflexes are automatic, stereotypical movements directed from the primitive brain and involving no higher level executive brain function.

These reflexes are essential for a baby’s survival in the first few weeks and months of life and they provide a basic training for many later voluntary skills. The primitive reflexes however, should only have a very limited life span and having helped the baby to survive the first few months of life, they should subsequently be inhibited or controlled by higher centres of the brain. This allows more sophisticated development of the brain to occur which in turn allows the infant control of voluntary responses.

In some infants these primitive reflexes remain active beyond the age of 12 months and can be a major contributing factor towards later neuro-developmental delay as well as hampering of the succeeding postural reflexes which should emerge to enable the maturing child to interact effectively with his environment.

Below are listed some of the main reflexes and how failure to shutdown can affect a child’s learning and development.

The Moro Reflex

Sometimes known as the Infant Startle Reflex, is an automatic response to a sudden change in sensory stimuli. A sudden noise, bright light or change in body position can trigger the Moro reflex. Some possible long-term effects of an un-inhibited Moro reflex are:

• Vision / reading difficulties

• Hypersensitivity to external stimuli

• Poor balance / coordination

• Poor digestion and poor stamina

• Highly charged

• Weak immune system

Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR)

This is closely linked to the Moro reflex as both are vestibular (balance/coordination) in origin and is important for the infant to develop a sense of balance, proprioception and increased muscle tone. Some possible long term effects of an un-inhibited TLR are:

• Easily tired

• Difficulty judging distance, depth, space and speed

• Visual, speech and auditory difficulties

• Toe walking

• Difficulty walking up and down stairs

Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)

This reflex is important for developing homo-lateral (one-sided) movements. When the infant turns his head to one side, there will be a reciprocal movement in the arm and leg of that same side. If the ATNR remains active, it is a significant cause of academic problems at school such as :

• Dyslexia

• Difficulty with Maths

• Confused handedness

• Handwriting and spelling difficulties

Spinal Galant Reflex

This normally works in conjunction with the ATNR to help propel the baby down the birth canal. It is also thought to help babies with balance and coordination and is a pre-requisite for creeping and crawling. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of children I have worked with who present with learning and developmental difficulties, did not crawl. An active Spinal Galant reflext will cause problems such as:

• Bed wetting past 5 years old

• Attention and Hyperactivity difficulties

• Scoliosis

• Poor concentration and coordination

• Poor posture

• Poor short term memory

Detection of primitive reflexes can help to isolate and identify the causes of a child’s problems so that an effective intervention strategy can be implemented. If only one reflex is discovered, this can usually be remediated through teaching alone. If however, a cluster of retained reflexes are identified the child will only be able to sustain long term improvement after following a reflex stimulation / inhibition programme.

This type of programme consists of specific physical, stereotyped movements practised for approximately 5 – 10 minutes per day over a period of nine – twelve months. By the application of these movements, the brain is given a ‘second change’ to register the reflex inhibitory movement patterns which should have been made at the appropriate stage in development. Testing for aberrant reflexes takes approximately one and a half hours. The exercises are done at home for a given length of time supplemented by regular 6 – 8 week reviews by a Practitioner.

Roshni Shah is a Learning Difficulties Therapist, Youth and Family Coach and Family Lives Facilitator.

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