Different Reflexes to Look for in Your Newborn

Welcoming a new baby into the world can be filled with magical moments that you’ll remember forever, especially once your baby begins to develop some body autonomy and discovers their facial expressions. Although these small movements during the first few weeks of their life may be adorable, they’re actually caused by innate reflexes. This means they’re involuntary. Reflexes in newborns help them survive during their transition out of the womb and into the world. They can also be signs of development and ongoing health and vitality. To help you keep track of your newborns journey, spend some time understanding what reflexes to expect. 


The Importance of Reflexes in Newborns

As mentioned, reflexes are involuntary movements present at birth. They’re part of the brain and central nervous system’s method of protecting your baby while they continue to form neural connections and understand the world around them. Newborn reflexes are triggered by stimulation or external factors. This causes an involuntary muscle reaction or neurological response. Some triggers include touch, movement, sound, and light. Normal reflexes are a sign that everything is functioning properly, and your baby is on a healthy track of development. If you notice anything abnormal, or your newborn isn’t displaying one or more innate reflexes, schedule a visit with your pediatrician.


Different Types of Newborn Reflexes to Look Out For

There are several different types of newborn reflexes that your baby will possess at birth. Make sure to keep an eye out for these involuntary movements and call your pediatrician if they’re not displaying any of the following.

1. Rooting Reflex

The rooting reflex is one of the most important reflexes newborns are born with. It’s the reflex that helps your baby latch on to your breast or a bottle in order to nurse. As a basic survival instinct, this oral reflex should be checked in the hospital to ensure that your baby is prepared to get the nutrition they need for ongoing development.

You can trigger the rooting reflex in your newborn by gently stroking their cheek or mouth. This should prompt them to turn their head towards your hand, in the direction of the cheek you’re stroking. While turning their head, your newborn should naturally open their mouth. However, don’t be alarmed if they begin to turn their head from one side to another in decreasing arcs. This is natural and can develop further over time. It’s how your newborn gets into position for nursing.

You should expect this reflex to continue for about four months. At this time, due to the learned experience of nursing, the rooting reflex becomes a voluntary response.


2. Sucking Reflex

Another oral reflex is the sucking reflex. This is an additional survival instinct that works in conjunction with the rooting reflex. It develops while your baby is still in the womb—around 32 weeks—and is why parents see their newborn sucking their thumbs in an ultrasound. There are two stages within the sucking reflex. First, your newborn will instinctively begin to make a sucking action if the roof of their mouth is stimulated (i.e., with a nipple or bottle). Your baby will place their lips over the item and gently squeeze it using their tongue and the top of their mouth. This helps provide the compression needed to extract milk during breastfeeding and is referred to as “expression.”

Once secure, your baby will use their tongue to make a sucking motion and pull the milk out of the breasts. This phase is often called “milking action.” Around four months, this reflex transitions into a learned skill. The sucking reflex can also be seen as a hunger cue.


3. Stepping Reflex

The stepping reflex is a pretty adorable one to watch out for. Although your newborn can’t support their own weight yet, they’ll still make the motion of walking when they’re suspended above the ground. Because of this, many people also refer to the stepping reflex as the walking or dancing reflex. This usually lasts for about two months and is meant to support your baby’s journey to crawling. The stepping reflex will make another appearance as learned walking, usually around the end of the first year of their life.

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4. Babinski Reflex

The Babinski reflex is a reflex that creates a response in your baby’s foot. It can be triggered by stroking their sole, from their heel up to their toes. This should cause them to move their big toe upwards while the rest of the toes spread apart from one another, like a fan. Although it may seem like a seemingly pointless reflex, it’s actually used to help pediatrician’s test the integrity of your baby’s corticospinal tract (CST). This can assist with diagnosis of certain neurological conditions from an early age. The Babinski reflex tends to last up until a child is about two years old, but may go away early.

Once the Babinski reflex goes away, it’s often replaced with the plantar grasp reflex. This stimulates a different response in the toes and continues well into adulthood. To initiate the plantar grasp reflex, place your fingers right below your baby’s toes and apply a slight pressure. This should cause them to curl their toes around your finger in an attempt to form a grip. 


5. Grasping Reflex

Another way to test the motor development of your newborn is through the grasping reflex. The plantar grasp is one of two types of grasping reflexes you’ll notice. The other, which is present right after birth, is the palmer grasp. This happens when you lightly stroke or touch the palm of your baby’s hand. As a response, they’ll automatically close their hand to make a fist, with your finger inside. The grip can be quite strong, but your baby usually has no control of this and may grip tighter if you try to remove your finger or whatever object they have. The grasping reflex tends to last until about five or six months.


6. Moro Reflex

This reflex, also commonly referred to as the startle reflex, involves all of your baby’s extremities—the arms, legs, and even the head. It tends to develop within the first 12 weeks after delivery. The Moro reflex is a response to loud sounds, bright lights, or sudden movements. This can trigger your baby to suddenly lift up their arms and legs, curl them back towards the body, while simultaneously throwing their head back. During the first few weeks of life, your baby may even exhibit the Moro reflex as a response to their own cry. This reflex tends to last until about five or six months of age.

If you notice that your baby doesn’t respond to startling stimuli with the Moro reflex, see your pediatrician. It could be an indication of infection, muscle weakness, injury, nerve damage, or a type of cerebral palsy.


7. Tonic Neck Reflex

The tonic neck reflex is present at birth and lasts until about five to six months old. This is also referred to as the fencing posture. It’s triggered when you turn your baby’s head to one side while they’re lying down. In response, their body automatically goes into a position similar to a fencer’s stance—one arm straightened with an open hand and the opposite arm bending upwards, flexed, with a tightly closed fist. This reflex might be subtle, but it should be present on both sides of the body.


Most of these reflexes will disappear as your baby ages—usually within four to six months. There are also some reflexes that tend to stick with us until we're well into our adult years. These include blinking, coughing, gagging, sneezing, and yawning.

If, at any moment, you’re worried about your baby’s development, the best thing you can do is see a pediatrician. A lack of some reflexes may indicate an issue with central nervous system development, and it’s always better to understand these complications sooner rather than later. This way, your baby can receive treatment to overcome delayed development or underlying conditions.

To help support you on your transition into parenthood, don’t forget to order your insurance covered breast pumps from Byram Healthcare. Although your newborn has a natural reflex to help with breastfeeding and nursing, breast pumping will provide you with some much-needed breaks during that first year of life. It also allows you to ensure that your baby is getting what they need, whether you’re there or not. To get started with our easy, three-step ordering process, visit our breast pump selection page today.