Reflexes develop in utero to help your baby during their birth and their first breath. Others emerge after birth which plays a role in your baby finding their way toward your chest and to chest/breastfeed. Each primitive reflex has a purpose and influence on future growth and development. As a parent, you can help your baby along their path of smooth reflex integration. Sometimes there are speed bumps along the way that can affect how well your baby can feed and learn new skills. Movement is a great tool you can use at home to help your baby in all areas of development.
Movement and brain development
Your baby is born to move and perform particular movements repeatedly. The information from stimulation of their senses and repetition of movement helps form pathways in their brain. By repeating reflexive movements, those movements become smoother and begin to integrate. With lots of repetitive practice, movements become learned patterns. The brain holds the memory of the movement and information in a different part of the brain.
Your baby’s reflexes integrate at different times and correlate to the developmental milestones. More movement means more practice and input from the senses for the brain to make more and more connections and pathways that set a foundation for the next stage of movements and developmental milestones.(3) As reflexes integrate, the brain can respond to experiences in a new way. For example, the startle reflex is seen a lot with a newborn baby. As this reflex is expressed over and over and the brain maps the information from all the repetition of the movement, around 8 weeks the movement will become more smooth and when it becomes integrated, we will see it expressed less often. The brain has learned when to startle and when there is no immediate reason to express the reflex.
Reflexes and breastfeeding
After birth, your baby’s reflexes direct them towards the chest to feed. Have you ever watched the breast crawl video or experienced your baby doing the breast crawl? During this time, the stepping reflex moves the baby up toward the nipple. We know the feeding cue of a baby putting their fists in their mouth. During the breast crawl 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, offer the breast sooner so you can allow for your baby to express those reflexes and initiate latching on their own as intended.
Position your baby at your breast/chest in a way that gives them the ability to use their reflexes for feeding. It will make it easier to get a deeper, more effective latch. Being in a reclined position with your baby on your body uses gravity to help give your baby a lot of stability. 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 and they will nod their head forward beginning to suck and get milk.
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 and integrate their reflexes.
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)
Bryna Sampey, IBCLC has taken the idea of rhythmic movement and applied it to babies to help them with feeding difficulties. She has taught many other IBCLCs how to help the families they work with on how to assess reflexes and demonstrate rhythmic movements for babies. It is always recommended to work with an IBCLC for which movements will help your baby the most and how to do the movements with your baby safely. Check out Bryna’s video of rhythmic movements here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VR_OCKpIhyo
When there are restrictions or tension, it stunts the full range of motion your baby has. Lack of movement interferes with successful breastfeeding. The rhythmic movements can help loosen tension, support greater ease and comfort while feeding, regulate the nervous system and aid your baby in the integration of their reflexes. Movement exercises are given by your IBCLC based on your baby’s individual needs and may include:
- Ribcage rocking
- Longitudinal rocking
- Side-lying rocking
- Sacral rocking
- Sushi roll
The exercises loosen tight hip, neck, and shoulder muscles, increase the freedom of movement of their body and allow for a more full range of motion during reflex expression.
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)
- Floortime(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.
- Crossbody 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, coordination, reading, and writing.(5)
Some environments 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 in 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 another bodyworker.