Primitive Motor Reflexes & Their Impact on Coordination & Learning

This blog is all about primitive reflexes, what retained reflexes look like, and how they can impact a child’s coordination and learning development. Don’t quit reading now...I promise this is some interesting stuff!

What are Primitive Reflexes? 

Babies are born with a number of special reflexes. A primitive reflex is an instinctive, involuntary movement response that infants need to assist them in meeting their needs. This includes latching to feed, purposeful grasping, processing vestibular stimulation to help with balance in sitting, changing distribution in muscle tone when rolling, sitting or crawling, and early hand-eye regard (Blomberg, H., Dempsey, M., 2011).

What is Reflex Integration?

Now, it is time to discuss what can happen if these reflexes hang around for too long. As infants grow into toddlers, their primitive reflexes should integrate, or absorb, to create smooth, voluntary neurological responses.

Retention of reflexes can be caused by a variety of factors, including traumatic birth experience, birth by C-section, avoidance of tummy time, delayed or skipped motor milestones (creeping, crawling, etc.), and chronic ear infections (Blomberg, H., Dempsey, M., 2011). Below, I’ve listed 2 examples of primitive reflexes and what we may see if they persist for too long. 

  1. Moro Reflex: Also called the startle reflex – it can be seen in a surprised or frightened infant up to about 4-6 months old.This reflex causes a baby to stretch out their arms and legs and quickly bring them back in. This can be seen in response to the feeling of falling or a sudden, loud sound. Children with retained mororeflexes may be sensitive to loud sounds, tags on clothing, or bright lights. They often have a hard time with self-regulation, impulse control, and paying attention in class due to this reflex stimulating the "fight or flight response," leading to uncontrollable, overreactive actions.
  2. Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex:This reflex helps your baby learn to crawl then disappears by 10-11 months of age. If it doesn’t, symptoms may include poor posture and coordination, poor attention span, hyperactivity, and, in some cases, toe walking, or even skipping crawling altogether.

Remember that every case is unique, and, if your child matches these characteristics, that does not necessarily mean that they have retained reflexes. If you are concerned about your child’s abilities and how they may relate to retained reflexes, we recommend requesting a referral for an OT or PT evaluation at Sidekick Therapy Partners. Assessment and treatment is guided by neurodevelopmental (NDT) and Rhythmic Movement Training (RMT) approaches.

-Jenna Chafin, OTR/L


Blomberg, H., & Dempsey, M. (2011). Movements that heal: Rhythmic movement training and primitive reflex integration