The Moro reflex is one of many infant primitive reflexes - an involuntary movement pattern that we are all born with. Put simply, the Moro reflex is the “startle reflex.” Have you ever seen an infant suddenly startle at a loud noise or sudden movement? That’s the Moro reflex at work!
An article published in 2020 described the Moro reflex as “an involuntary protective motor response against abrupt disruption of body balance or extremely sudden stimulation.” All primitive reflexes are designed for protection and higher level gross motor and cognitive development. The Moro reflex specifically induces a physical response as well as an auditory response - the infant will typically cry during this startle response. This is meant to alert the adult that the infant is in “danger” or needs assistance.
The Moro reflex is triggered by sudden stimuli, such as a loud noise, movement such as being picked up, or even a sudden movement that the infant produces themselves.
This startle response typically only lasts for a few seconds. You’ll see movement in the arms and the legs, as well as a startled look on baby’s face. Because this is a “protective” response, stress chemicals are released. Think of the adrenaline rush associated with “fight or flight” - it’s the same concept.
The Moro reflex is developed in utero. It should be fully developed at birth (however, it has been noted that the Moro reflex may be weaker in premature infants than in full-term infants). Because primitive reflexes are the foundation for higher-level motor and cognitive development, they should integrate (go away) at a certain developmental age. The Moro reflex should be integrated by six months of age/after birth. This reflex is also related to a baby’s development of head control!
Although there is no one scientific method to ensure full primitive reflex integration, there are some things to take into consideration when discussing the integration of the Moro reflex.
Let’s talk about sensory integration. By providing an infant with different types of sensory stimulation, new neural pathways will be developed in the brain, thus stimulating new movement and cognitive development. An article on sensory integration discussed that the engagement in sensorimotor activities promoted adaptive behaviors via neuroplastic changes. Simply put, by experiencing different types of sensory activities, our brains can change and thus promote new behaviors!
So what types of sensory activities should you provide to your newborn infant? Keep it simple!
Because every newborn is different and every experience is different, there’s no one way to guarantee that the Moro reflex will be successfully integrated by six months of age. However, you can feel more confident that your baby is getting the sensory experiences necessary for potential primitive reflex integration by using the above strategies.
A study looking at the persistence of primitive reflexes and associated problems in children identified these potential factors for unintegrated primitive reflexes, including the Moro:
Additionally, if a child has successfully integrated their primitive reflexes, a sudden or chronic bout of trauma, stress or injury can re-activate these reflexes.
While there is no guarantee for reflex integration, there are contributing factors to consider if your child has an unintegrated Moro reflex.
Quick note: you may have heard talk about swaddling and the Moro reflex. However, there has been no research to prove a correlation between swaddling and an unintegrated Moro reflex.
Because the Moro reflex elicits a physical reaction, it also includes a chemical reaction - stress hormones are released when the Moro reflex is activated, specifically adrenaline and cortisol. When the Moro reflex is unintegrated, these chemicals are being released more often, resulting in hypersensitivity, adverse reactions to small problems, focus, and concentration, and overall anxiety.
Additional symptoms related to an unintegrated Moro reflex in older children are:
If your child exhibits any of the above symptoms/challenges, the first step will be to talk with your pediatrician. Discuss your concerns - if your pediatrician is familiar with primitive reflex integration, they may already have a plan of action ready. If your pediatrician is unfamiliar with primitive reflex integration, feel free to share what you've learned! If you ever feel uncomfortable or your concerns are being pushed to the side, don’t be afraid to seek a new pediatrician.
Many Occupational Therapists (OT) are trained in primitive reflex integration techniques. Seek one out! Talk with friends and family members to see if they know anyone specific. Use Facebook groups and Instagram to find someone who has training. Physical Therapists (PT), cranio-sacral therapists, and chiropractors may also have knowledge of primitive reflex integration. It can take some time to locate the right professional, so don’t give up!
Meanwhile, there are some different exercises and play activities that you can incorporate into your child’s daily routine that can help promote the integration of the Moro reflex.
For babies, decreasing the amount of waking time spent in containers is the best way to integrate the Moro reflex. When baby is awake, provide natural movement activities and as much tummy time as possible.
If your child is young, under three years old, focus on developmental movements. Try engaging them in more tummy time activities:
If your child is older, you can still focus on the same developmental movements and incorporate tummy time into daily tasks.
If your child is struggling with some of the signs / symptoms associated with an unintegrated Moro reflex, try some of these strategies:
As you continue on your path through primitive reflex integration, keep in mind that your child is unique, and there's nothing wrong with them! Even if they have an unintegrated Moro reflex and seem to be struggling more than other children, your job is simply to help guide them along the way and provide as much support as possible.
You and your child are doing the best you can with what you have, so keep researching and keep trying new things until you find what works. Even then, keep searching because what works now might not work forever especially as your child grows and develops through different seasons of life!
All Things Sensory by Harkla Podcast
Be sure to check out our Primitive Reflexes digital course on Harkla.co!
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