From early on, when your baby is in utero, reflexes play a crucial role in helping your baby during birth, taking their first breath, and breastfeeding. These innate reflexes assist your baby in finding the breast, latching, and feeding, making it easier for both you and your baby. By understanding the integration of reflexes and incorporating movement activities into your baby's routine, you can support their brain development, improve latching during breastfeeding, and enhance overall growth and coordination.
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. Innate reflexes drive their movements. Those movements become smoother with repetition, 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 can respond to experiences in a new way. For example, the startle reflex is often seen in a newborn baby. As this reflex happens repeatedly, 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 startle. This reflex starts to integrate around 8-12 weeks old but is not fully integrated until about 4-6 months old.
Reflexes and breastfeeding
Have you ever watched the breast crawl video or experienced your baby doing the breast crawl? After birth, your baby’s reflexes help them find the breast and nipple, latch, and breastfeed.
Feeding cues are expressed as the baby moves toward the nipple, like putting their fists in their mouth and licking their lips. 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 get hungry so they are at the breast sooner and can use those reflexes to practice latching on their own as nature designed.
Stability on your body will make it easier for your baby to know where their body is in space and to focus on a deep, 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, so the reflexes are more easily expressed, which can help them latch. As your baby roots, they turn their head side to side, searching for the nipple. Their chin will press into the breast, triggering their mouth to open wide, and they will nod their head forward, latching, and begin to feed. The nipple brushing against the lips triggers another reflex and can result in the baby slurping in the nipple.
Rhythmic movements and reflex integration
You can build activities into your baby’s day that give them opportunities for movement. All sorts of movements 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, making 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.
Your baby’s position in utero, birth, and oral restrictions can cause muscle tension and impact their ability and flexibility for movement. They may be stuck in a particular reflex or 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, we want them to be able to move easily, use the muscles nature designed to be used, and for them to be able to have a full range of motion on both sides of their body.
When there are restrictions or tension, it stunts your baby's full range of motion. The rhythmic movements can help loosen tension, support positioning, and latching comfort while feeding, regulate the nervous system, and aid your baby in the integration of their reflexes.
How your IBCLC can help
Your International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (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 targeted to your baby’s individual needs. Your IBCLC will guide you in how to do each movement and how to do it safely with your baby.
Bryna Sampey, IBCLC, has applied the ideas of rhythmic movement to babies. In this video, Bryna shows the following rhythmic movements:
Avery Young, IBCLC from Nourished Young, teaches why a baby's feeding reflexes are so crucial for growth and development. Her rhythmic movements support the sequence of reflexes used during latching. (8) If a reflex is skipped during the process, it can affect breastfeeding and other developmental milestones as your baby grows.
More opportunities to move!
Babywearing - provides a new view for your baby, closer to your eye level. As you move, your baby is also making small movements that help strengthen their core. Babywearing helps strengthen your baby's neck and shoulder muscles and counts as tummy time. Moving together, especially with music, creates synchronicity and a deep bond between you and your baby. (7)
Floor time (6) - let your baby have time on the floor (on their tummy and back) 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 that they constantly have to re-learn how much space their body takes up, how far their arms can reach, or how long their legs can kick. The brain is remapping all the time. Infant massage helps your baby feel the length of their body, promotes relaxation, and strengthens the bond between you and them. It is a great activity for dad and baby as well. Massage strokes can be done while playing relaxing music and are steady, smooth, and rhythmic.
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 essential for so many skills, including reaching for toys, balance, coordination, reading, and writing. ( 5)
Car seats outside of the car
Floor mats that restrict full-arm movements
Sometimes babies need more than the exercises you can provide at home. Seeing an IBCLC, pediatric chiropractor, or another bodyworker may be necessary when you are stuck making progress.
Reflexes begin to develop in utero and will be used to help your baby during the birth process and to take their first breath. Still, more reflexes emerge after birth with the purpose of helping your baby find their way toward your chest, latching and attaching for feeding. The repetition of reflexive feeding helps the brain learn the muscle patterns involved, and feeding becomes smoother over time.
All innate, primitive reflexes have a purpose and influence on future growth and development. Give your baby the opportunity to use their reflexes every time they breastfeed, making breastfeeding easier for you both. Using their reflexes during latching and breastfeeding sets the stage for the next 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.