Reflexes begin to develop in utero and will be used to help your baby during the birth process and to take their first breath. Even more reflexes emerge after birth. These reflexes make it possible for your baby to find their way toward the breast, find the nipple, latch and breastfeed.
These innate, primitive reflexes each have a purpose and influence on future growth and development. As a parent, you can give them the chance to use those reflexes everytime they breastfeed. Those reflexes can make breastfeeding easier for you both. Using their reflexes during latching and breastfeeding set the stage for other developmental stages.
Sometimes there are speed bumps along the way that can affect how well your baby can feed and learn new skills.(8) Movement activities are a great tool you can use at home to help your baby in all areas of development including breastfeeding success.
Movement and brain development
Your baby is born to move. The information your baby gets from stimulation of their senses and repeating movements forms pathways in their brain. Their movements are driven by innate reflexes. With repetition, those movements become smoother and their reflexes begin to integrate.(9) As they practice, movements become learned patterns. The brain holds the memory of each movement pattern and which muscles were used in a different part of the brain as your baby gets older and has repeated that movement over and over..
Your baby’s reflexes integrate at different times and correlate to the developmental milestones you are probably familiar with. More time being able to move means more practice and information for the brain to make and build more connections and pathways that set a foundation for the next stage of developmental milestones.(3)
As reflexes integrate, the brain is able to respond to experiences in a new way. For example, the startle reflex is seen a lot with a newborn baby. As this reflex happens over and over, your baby’s brain and nervous system communicate. The brain begins to be able to tell when to react and startle or when everything is alright and there is no need to be startled. Around 8-12 weeks old this reflex begins to integrate, but it is not fully integrated until around 4-6 months old.
Reflexes and breastfeeding
Have you ever watched the breast crawl video or experienced your own baby doing the breast crawl? After birth, your baby’s reflexes help them get to the chest, find the nipple and attach to the breast to feed.
We see feeding cues as they move towards the nipple like the baby putting their fists in their mouth. After birth, their hands still smell like amniotic fluid. The Montgomery glands on the areola secrete a fluid with a similar smell helping the baby continue to find their way.(1) Resist that urge to move your baby’s hands away from their mouth during the early weeks of breastfeeding. Instead, hold your baby skin to skin before they are getting hungry so they are at the breast sooner and able to use those reflexes to practice latching on their own as intended.
Stability on your body and how they feel their body is in space will make it easier to get a deeper, more effective and comfortable latch. Being in a reclined position with your baby on top of your body uses gravity to hold your baby to you and so the reflexes can be used to help them latch. As your baby roots, they turn their head side to side searching for the nipple. Their chin will touch the breast and their mouth will open wide. The nipple will brush against the top lip, triggering another reflex, and they will nod their head forward latching and begin to feed.
You can build activities into your baby’s day that give them opportunities for movement. All of them use your baby’s senses and give their developing brain tons of information to map their experiences which helps integrate their reflexes. Lack of movement has the opposite effect.
Unintegrated reflexes or poor reflex integration can have long reaching impacts.(2) Rhythmic Movement is one form of therapy school age children and adults use to help integrate retained reflexes resolving or improving all sorts of dysregulations like poor balance and coordination, handwriting skills, ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, posture, and so much more.(4)
Think back to that moro reflex. If this is retained, your baby’s body may be more rigid which can make latching difficult. They may still get upset, react and cry more often and have poor head control as they get older. If your baby doesn’t feel stable during latching and positioning to feed, the moro reflex will come into play. It may seem like their arms get in the way during latching.
How your baby was positioned in utero, how they were born and other restrictions can cause tension in their muscles and impact how well they are able to move. They might seem to be stuck in a certain reflex or maybe have reflexes that are not as strong as they should be. All of that changes how your baby will move and feed. Some of their muscles might be tighter because of it or they may compensate and use a different muscle altogether for an activity. Ideally, wwe want them to be able to move easily, use the muscles nature designed to be used and for them to be able to have this full range of motion on both sides of their body.
When there are restrictions or tension, it stunts the full range of motion your baby has. The rhythmic movements can help loosen tension, support positioning and latching comfort while feeding, regulate the nervous system and aid your baby in integration of their reflexes.
How your IBCLC can help
Your IBCLC will talk with you about your pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. They will observe your baby and how they move, see what their reflexes do and can give rhythmic movement exercises that will be picked for their individual needs. Your IBCLC will guide you in how to do each movement and how to do it safely with your baby.
- Ribcage rocking
- Longitudinal rocking
- Side lying rocking
- Sacral rocking
- Sushi roll
Avery Young, IBCLC from Nourished Young teaches about why a baby's feeding reflexes are so important for growth and development forever. Her rhythmic movements support the sequence of reflexes used during latching.(8) If a reflex is skipped during the process, it can also affect other developmental milestones as your baby grows.
More opportunities to move!
- Babywearing - a new view closer to your eye level. As you move, your baby is also making small movements that help strengthen their core. Moving together especially with music creates synchronicity and a deep bond between parent and baby.(7)
- Floor time(6) - let your baby have time on the floor to move as well. As they are older, introduce a variety of textures like playing in the grass or on a carpet rather than wood or hard floor surface. All experiences give new information to the brain.
- Rocking your baby or swaying side to side is very familiar and often helps calm an upset baby. You can have your baby skin-to-skin and gently rock them on your body even if they are not upset as a gentle yet deep experience of rhythmic movement and bonding.
- Infant massage - Touch is a great way to give information to the body. Your baby is growing so fast and they constantly have to re-learn how much space their body takes up in space, just how far their arms can reach or legs can kick. The brain is remapping all the time. Infant massage helps your baby feel the length of their body, is relaxing and strengthens the bond between you. Massage strokes can be done while playing relaxing music and are done in a steady, smooth and rhythmic nature.
- Cross body movements - these exercises focus on crossing the imaginary line down the center of the body like touching your baby’s right hand to their left foot. Crossing the midline is important for so many skills including reaching for toys, balance and coordination, reading and writing.(5)
There are environments that can interfere with your baby's ability to freely move and should be limited as much as possible.
- Car seats outside of the car
- Floor mats that restrict full arm movements
- Bouncy seats
It is fantastic to include a variety of movement opportunities as possible into your baby’s day. Some situations need more than the exercises you can provide at home. You may need to see a practitioner as part of your plan. This may include an IBCLC, pediatric chiropractor or other body worker.