The Palmar Grasp reflex is one of many infant primitive reflexes - an involuntary movement pattern that we are all born with. You know how infants basically have a death grip - they can grab your finger, your hair, your clothes - that’s the palmar reflex at work!
The Palmar reflex is elicited by pressure to the infant’s palm, resulting in the fingers closing around the object that provided pressure, as well as gripping or holding on - that death grip! Remember, this is an involuntary movement - it happens before the infant has control over his/her hands. One study from 2020 stated that,
“The palmar reflex probably serves to create a basic motor pattern that lays the foundation for obtaining this voluntary ability. Furthermore, this reflection creates interaction and bond between the infant and the adult.”
In infancy, the hands and the mouth are directly linked which means that the Palmar reflex is also activated when the infant is nursing/drinking from a bottle. You can see this connection as the infant sucks - the hands will reflexively clench in coordination with the sucking.
The Palmar reflex emerges at around 11 weeks in utero and should only remain active until 3-6 months of age. This is around the same time that the infant begins to gain control over his/her hands and intentionally begins reaching for objects.
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 Palmar 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 Palmar reflex will be successfully integrated by 3-6 months of age. However, by using the above strategies you can feel more confident that your baby is getting the sensory experiences necessary for potential primitive reflex integration.
An article from the International Journal of Pediatrics stated that the palmar reflex may be retained longer, compared to “normal” infants, “in infants with spastic hemiplegia or quadriplegia, whereas it is very weak in infants with cerebral palsy (CP) of the athetoid type.”
Additionally, a study looking at the persistence of primitive reflexes and associated problems in children identified these potential factors for unintegrated primitive reflexes:
While there is no guarantee for reflex integration, there are contributing factors to take into consideration if your child has an unintegrated Palmar reflex.
Symptoms related to an unintegrated Palmar reflex in older children are:
If your child exhibits any of the above symptoms / challenges, the first step is going to 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 that your concerns are being pushed to the side, don’t be afraid to seek out 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 Palmar reflex.
For babies, decreasing the amount of waking time spent in containers is the best way to integrate the Palmar reflex. Specifically spending time each day in tummy time to provide tactile stimulation to the hands, face, and feet! Try placing your baby on different surfaces for tummy time: different textured blankets, grass, etc.
If your child is young, under 3 years old, focus on developing fine motor skills:
If your child is older, you can still focus on the same above activities, just make them more challenging! As well as try these activities:
If your child is struggling with some of the signs / symptoms associated with an unintegrated Palmar 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 Palmar 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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