Did you know that your baby not only comes with a hat, but they also come with reflexes? Actions their bodies can do without their being aware of it, which help baby stay safe and sound! Cool, right? After all, it’s not like newborns have a lot of control over their bodies yet, so nature has seen fit to equip them with a few skills that kick into gear when needed. But what are they?
Rooting and sucking
Stroke a newborn’s cheek and you’ll see them turn their head toward your hand, open their mouths and engaging in a sucking motion with their mouth. That’s rooting: they’re instinctively looking for lunch! That’s why, if you pop a pinkie into their mouths, they’ll suck on it and why soothers are so immensely popular with the newborn crowd. Touching the roof of their mouths sets off the sucking instinct. They need to feed the instinct, as it were, so when they’re not actively eating, they are sometimes comforted by fingers or soothers.
Because these instincts develop in utero between 32 and 36 weeks, a premature baby might not have fully developed the sucking instinct when they are born.
Babies have an instinct to help prevent them from choking on objects. If you put a spoon on the end of their tongue, they’ll push it back! That’s the tongue thrust reflex. Until they drop this reflex, around 4 to 6 months of age, there’s little point attempting too much in the way of solid food, because of this reflex.
While technically known as the moro reflex, this is your baby’s ability to startle. Loud noises, being placed on their backs in a crib (which gives them a sensation of falling), bright lights or sudden movements can trigger the moro reflex. They will throw their head back, extend out their arms and legs, cry, pull their legs back in, almost as if they are protecting themselves. It’s basically a signal to you to pick them up! They can even startle themselves, with their own cries! If your baby is startling themselves out of sleep, swaddling can often help!
Babies come with a reflex to avoid near miss collisions! If you are holding them and suddenly bring your face close to theirs, they’ll pull away. It’s not revulsion or fear: just the instinct to avoid a bonk on the noggin!
While nowhere near ready to start cruising the halls of your home, a baby will step, if held up under the arms with their feet placed on the floor. They’ll almost seem to walk in place. Don’t let go though, because while the need for this reflex isn’t fully understood, one thing that is clear is that it doesn’t signal an ability to walk yet!
Ever noticed that babies like to grasp onto fingers, surprisingly tightly? If you tickle their palm, they will reflexively grasp your finger, almost as if to hold you close. Cute, right? Like their way of saying ‘stay here and play with me!’
No, they aren’t ready to grab swords and start with the fancy footwork. Fencing refers to an arm coordination reflex that has no known benefit but is interesting to test. Place baby on his or her back and then gently turn their head to the right. You’ll find that they will move their right arm out in front of themselves (assuming you haven’t swaddled them!) and the left arm over their head. Now do the reverse: head to the left, left arm goes out and right arm goes overhead. It’s fascinating!
This reflex protects baby from a variety of mishaps, up to age one. For example, a newborn will exhibit it if a blanket falls on their face: they’ll shake their head and move their arms about, in an attempt to remove it. Later on, as they start learning to sit up, they will instinctively put out an arm to catch themselves if they start to tip over. It doesn’t always work, mind you, so make sure you’re around to help, but the instinct is there!
As if babies weren’t fascinating enough! Knowing about these reflexes will help you and your pediatrician to see that baby is developmentally normal too. After all, they can’t speak yet! If you’re unsure about any of these reflexes or other things your newborn is doing, ask your postpartum doula! It’s what she’s there for and she’s no doubt experienced it all!