What are Retained Primitive Reflexes?

Many people worry about the issues they see within their children and look for a diagnosis, however, few realise the cause of these issues and the fact that knowing what to do, puts the power back in their hands!

Primitive reflexes allow the us to engage the world, which allows us to engage our senses. These stimuli come back and turn on genes that regulate brain development, building the brain from the bottom up.

Paraphrased: Dr Robert Melillo (Education Posturepro.co- Dr Robert Melillo on Brain Imbalances and Primitive Reflexes)

What are primitive reflexes?

According to Dr Robert Melillo, the only organ not fully developed at birth is the brain. The head of a foetus must move through a small birth canal, and it would seem that the genes that grow the brain cells wait for the signal that it is outside the mother’s body to for it to continue its development. These genes that regulate brain development are known as experience-dependent genes and are stimulated by environmental factors such as light, sound, movement, gravity, temperature and touch. For the brain to grow, movement is required. Movement initiates the engagement of our senses but our frontal lobe and motor cortex are not developed enough to do so. Enter the primitive reflexes!

Reflexes are spontaneous moves made by the body in response to a stimulus. Primitive reflexes originate in the brain stem and should be fully developed at birth and then should get “packed away” as they integrate into the mind-body system. This happens when the frontal lobes are developed, suppressing these so that the children may move into what is referred to as “normal” development. Postural reflexes on the other hand originate in the midbrain and are there to keep a child upright. These emerge after birth and should be fully developed by three and a half years old.

Primitive reflexes are visible as spontaneous movements made in response to a stimuli. This automatic response is often due to sensory signals with the goal of protecting the child until the child is strong enough to use voluntary movement to do so. We see these reflexive movements and behaviours when a child experiences a sudden change in temperature or change in head position as well as with tactile stimulation in the area of the reflex.

What is the purpose of retained primitive reflexes?

Primitive reflexes are there to help a defenseless baby survive, assist with birth as well as through the developmental milestones. Our first primitive reflex results in a baby keeping still and holding its breath. Incredible if you consider that it is all a foetus can do to protect itself. This is called the Fear Paralysis Reflex (FPR). Persons with this retained reflex will respond to a perceived fear by freezing as they seem ” paralysed” with fear. You can understand why when this is triggered, that the person will get the information that he or she is in danger. For this reason, this retained reflex is linked with all types of anxieties, unexplained fears and sleep disturbances. This reflex should become the Moro reflex which is all about fight-or-flight. People may ‘defend’ themselves when we see the fight response or do anything to avoid perceived danger with the flight response. When this doesn’t mature into the adult startle reflex, these people may also battle with anxiety and may lash out or use other behaviours to “protect” themselves.

Other reflexes are there to assist the baby during the first years of life so that they may eventually stand upright and move with balance and co-ordination. Sally Goddard Blythe states the following in her book, The Well Balanced Child Movement and Early Learning , “The process of motor development in the first year of life is described through a series of reflexes, which provide mirrors on the child’s developing nervous system, whilst providing an in-built training programme for motor skills.” The automatic response of each reflex is seen as a movement. The more a child moves, the more he can control his or her movements. By moving in all ways, motor cells begin a process of modification. Through repetition of these movements, patterns within the brain form, allowing for these to become co-ordinated and permanent. Smooth controlled movements are a sign of better connections not only between the body and brain, but within the brain itself.

Why should they integrate?

Having understood the role of reflexes in development, it is perhaps clearer as to how active reflexes are an issue for people of all ages. The reflexive responses we see in children often become some of behaviours used to diagnose children with learning difficulties. The layperson may see these as similarities between children diagnosed with learning difficulties such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. What they are seeing are the “symptoms” of retained reflexes in both while these children experience other issues alongside these.

Active primitive reflexes when triggered, will interfere with the information coming in from the sensory organs. This may result in processing issues as well as having then a delayed response from the brain to the rest of the body. Retained reflexes will affect a child on every level; physically, academically and emotionally. These are not limited to the following labels but add to the challenges experienced within:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Dysphasia
  • Learning Disorders
  • Sensory Processing Disorders
  • As well as with emotional development such as immature behaviour, shyness and more

Possible reasons for retained reflexes.

The body is fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalms 139:13 &14). We see this eloquent design evident in the emergence, peak and integration of these reflexes as they wait their turn to assist the developing child. For this reason, when one reflex fails to emerge or inhibit, it may cause a chain reaction preventing other reflexes from emerging. Below are some of the possible reasons for these reflexes not integrating found in Dr Marlize Basson’s course, Early Childhood Reflexes and Reactions;

  • Type of birth (Caesarean section, induced, breech birth or trauma at birth.)
  • Toxicity exposure (environmental and reactions to vaccinations)
  • Anaesthetics
  • Nutrition (allergies and intolerances)
  • Injuries including head injuires
  • Illnesses as well as chronic ear infections and high fever
  • Lack of movement or movement opportunities (overuse of baby walkers, car seats, bouncers, too much screen time, early crawling and walking)
  • Stress during and after pregnancy

Trauma may also result in reflexes previously integrated re-emerging. Weakened muscles resulting from the aging process may also see these re-emergence of these and may lead to people tripping and falling more easily.

What are some of these primitive reflexes?

Primitive reflexes emerge as early as five weeks in the womb and should be fully developed forty weeks gestation to ready the child for the birthing process and survival. These should be inhibited by 6-12 months by a developing brain.

Some of these reflexes include the following;

  • Fear Paralysis Reflex
  • Moro
  • Root and Suck
  • Palmer
  • Plantar
  • Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR)
  • Babkin reflex
  • Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)
  • Spinal Galant
  • Landau
  • Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)
  • Spinal Perez and Vollmer
  • Babinski … and more

How do these affect people physically?

Active primitive reflexes may affect a person physically as they prevent the development of movement patterns. As a child moves, the cerebellum works with the vestibular system (the part of the brain responsible for balance), the brain stem as well as the basal ganglia, in order to process sensory input with the goal of making movement smooth. Smooth and rhythmical movements allow for connections between the cerebellum and different areas of the cortex. Jerky, unco-ordinated and asymmetrical movements are signs of retained primitive reflexes; Below are some ways in which active primitive reflexes may affect a child physically:

  • Prolonged breaking of voice
  • Sensitivities
  • Sensory Processing Issues
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Adverse reactions to medication
  • Balance and co-ordination issues
  • Motion sickness
  • Poor Pupillary reaction to light
  • Tense muscles
  • Difficulties chewing food
  • Picky eaters and eating disorders
  • Tongue too far forward in the mouth
  • Complains about sore back, feet
  • Scoliosis
  • One leg longer than the other
  • Bladder weakness
  • Wetting the bed after the age of five-years
  • Ingrown toenails
  • Excessive drooling and mouth breathing
  • Frequent foot sprains
  • Tendency to be cross-eyed
  • Dislikes physical activity and sports
  • Eye-tracking problems
  • Makes noises or sings to self
  • Hand-eye co-ordination issues
  • Low muscle tone
  • Poor posture
  • Inner temperature gage not working
  • Awkward walking and running
  • Poor digestion
  • Food intolerances
  • May have increased arching of the palate
  • May need orthodontal work
  • Restless legs
  • Gets tired quickly… and others

How do these affect people emotionally?

As explained before, when these primitive reflexes are triggered, a person may experience emotions that make them feel unsafe. Different reflexes may result in different emotional responses. They may also get in the way of a person’s ability to mature emotionally and develop social skills. Here are some of the emotional “symptoms” related to retained or active primitive reflexes:

  • Emotionally immature
  • Withdrawal or excessive shyness
  • Anxiety and insecurities
  • Tendency to lash out
  • Poor adaptably and a tendency to be inflexible
  • Depression and despondency
  • Unexplained fears
  • Tendency to be a loner
  • May be abrupt or rude
  • Hyperactivity
  • Manipulative or dominant behaviour
  • Difficulty connecting with others
  • Defiant behaviour
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Unrealistic view of self
  • May battle to let things go
  • Tendency to be secretive
  • Obsessive compulsive symptoms
  • Needs constant reassurance
  • Not good listeners
  • Argumentative
  • Talks too much and interrupts
  • Lack emotional grounding
  • Perfectionistic behaviour
  • Difficulty with self-control
  • Trouble getting in touch with feelings
  • Difficulty perceiving other people’s viewpoints… and more

How do these affect people in terms of learning?

Because primitive reflexes are seen as so important by the body, when triggered they interrupt learning. Anxiety and fear further cause children to shift into fight-or-flight mode and we see them moving from whole-brain thinking to their unique limited way of thinking also referred to as their profile in our work. Primitive reflexes also result in movements that do not support learning affecting a child’s ability to sit still, hold the pencil correctly or use their eyes to read with comprehension as they shift from the board to their books. The following are some of the ways in which these primitive reflexes affect learning:

  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Difficulty shutting out background noise
  • Auditory processing issues
  • Speech and articulation issues
  • Chews on pencil etc
  • Difficulty developing fine motor skills
  • Poor dexterity and pencil grip
  • Stuttering and stammering
  • Difficulty grasping concepts
  • Difficulty with mathematical concepts
  • Spelling issues
  • Dyslexia- letter and number reversals
  • Difficulty constructing stories with flow
  • Lying on the desk when working or holding head in hand
  • Skips words when reading
  • slow at copying off the board
  • Spatial difficulties
  • Poor sequencing skills
  • Poor sense of time
  • Trouble staying on task
  • Difficulty perceiving sounds
  • Poor handwriting
  • Repeats words/lines when reading or writing
  • Fidgeting
  • Reading with no feeling
  • Attention problems
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulse control problems
  • Poor short-term and long-term memory
  • Vision issues

Post Covid and other traumas.

This pandemic has caused many problems that may not go away unless we begin to work on integrating these reflexes. Covid saw the “re-education” of the Fear Paralysis Reflex through doing what we would do to assist a person, yet in reverse. When we use specific moves, we need to do it continuously for a length of time. We first ensure the person knows and feels safe while we add movement and ensure our client is breathing. During the pandemic fear was introduced as people spoke about life and death. Our children were exposed to this as we were bombarded by this message either via social media or in conversation. We then limited healthy air, by the wearing of masks and then limited movement and social interaction. Notice the exact opposite of what we would do, limiting breath as opposed to allowing breath, limiting movement instead of allowing movement and experiencing a life-threatening disease rather than experiencing safety. It is no wonder that anxiety and anxiety disorders run rife post pandemic with this being one of the biggest symptoms of the active FPR. Lack of movement and learning that take the child into consideration have further resulted in big gaps in our schooling system with outrageous amounts of children unable to read in grade 4 (the same bunch that were meant to attend grade 1 in 2020).

As mentioned above trauma or stress may also result in an inhibited reflex, re-emerging. We all have a “survival kit “that the body uses as a default in stressful situations. Each of us will have certain reflexes that we might see present after such a time. Knowing the signs of these allows us to inhibit them once more. In our work, we use specific movements to do so.

What can I do if I recognise some of the above symptoms in myself or in my children?

In my work as an Educational Kinesiologist using Rhythmic Movement Training and other reflex work, I use movement to instruct the body to “pack” retained primitive reflexes away. Packing these away will result in less of the above symptoms freeing up the mind to cope better in school, work or in life! Without these interruptions, movement becomes more co-ordinated and the body can strengthen. It is never too late to work back into the mind-body system so as to bridge gaps and make a real difference. Many of my clients have begun to see positive changes in themselves. This process…

  • begins with a profiling session to understand the retained primitive reflexes
  • a movement programme is put together
  • Follow-up sessions will allow for the updating of movement programmes as the person displays readiness

This is not a quick fix, and one must appreciate the fact that we are developing the brain and body through these movement sessions. Having said that, the investment has a great return in that it is a more permanent solution to many of the above symptoms.

When is a movement programme not for you?

Such a program is not for you if…

  • you are expecting an overnight “fix”
  • If you are not able to dedicate 15 minutes to the moves every second day
  • If you see sitting still, eyes and ears forward as the only way to learn

How can I learn more about reflexes?

Courses and workshops are designed for the layperson, being the mom, the teacher, the au pair or even the tutor as well as the occupational therapist and other professionals. These courses and workshops are created to empower you so that you can make a real difference without needing a large space to work in or much time! Look out for our next Webinar on Reflexes or contact us for more information on courses that will equip you to use these specific moves to help integrate these primitive reflexes.

Other courses you might want to find out more about:

  • Rhythmic Movement Training (level 1,2 and 3)
  • RMTi- Making Connections
  • RMTi- School Readiness
  • RMTi- Face the Fear

Check out https://rhythmicmovement.org

Contact us:

For further information, feel free to contact us at info@mindfulmoves.co.za, or check out our website at www.mindfulmoves.co.za.

Look out for our Reflex Webinar coming soon!

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