Primitive Reflexes - Retain Them Not

Have you or someone you know been diagnosed with ‘retained primitive reflex’? What does this diagnosis mean? Can it be fixed? If it can, how does one un-retain these primitive reflexes?

I like to first breakdown the words of the term to get at their root meanings before delving further into their implications. The word retained means “to keep or to hold back.” The word primitive means “original or first of its kind”. And finally, the word reflex means “a bending back to.” Combining the individual words into a succinct definition, retained primitive reflex means “keeping of the original bending.”

What was our original bending? To answer this, we have to think back to our original location. Where was our original location? That would be our mother’s womb. The original bending in our mother’s womb was the fetal position. The fetal position gets its name in reference to how the prenatal baby arranges its body while in the womb. The textbook fetal position includes the back curved forward, the head flexed down and the extremities hugged closely to the mid-section. The fetal position is the position of protection and comfort for the growing baby. It is also the neurological ‘preset’ for the nervous system as it develops; the primordial starting point as it forms neurological connections.

The fetal position is normal and natural for the fetus because it needs to feel protection and comfort as it slowly develops. Part of the lack of movement of the fetus is also in part do to the limited amount of space that is available. It is confined to the world of the womb. But even while in its confined space, it learns to explore and move. Every mother will remark on how the baby will kick, grab, and move while in the womb, learning how to explore its environment. While the fetal position is normal for when we are in the internal natural womb, it should not be the default position when we are in the external natural world.

As we grow and the brain develops, we naturally lose the majority of our primitive reflexes because we no longer need to be in a state of complete protection. New neural connections and pathways link up as we extend outside of ourselves, out of our infancy and into adolescence and then adulthood.  So how can primitive reflexes get retained? Because we as individuals and as a society are not allowing our brain’s the opportunity to fully develop and express itself.

Where do we find ourselves in our modern world?  Harking back to our days in the womb: Hunched over a computer, head down on our phones, extremities curled up on the recliner, barely moving past the end table to reach for our pop and/or junk food. Where do our children find themselves in our modern world? Right next to us on the couch bent over their own gadget or device. The reflexes are indeed retained, or kept, because we never live our lives outside of our modern day womb. We are meant to explore, experience, get out of our comfort zone. Why is this? Exploration leads to experience. Experience leads to growth. Growth leads to development. Development leads to creation. Ultimately, I think, creation leads to joy. This is why even the baby knows after 9 months in the womb, it is ready to explore other territories.

With birth, the baby is finally ready to explore life outside the womb, to find the source of his or her creation. New neurological connections should be made that override and take precedence over the primitive reflexes. Those overriding connections usually involve movements that take us out of the reflexed, or “fetal-flexed” position. What do these movements look like? There are a plethora of actions and movements, but the overarching natural progressions are hardwired into our brain and present themselves in a general time sequence. These actions are first initiated in the brainstem and then expand further up into the higher brain centers, apexing at the primary motor cortex. There are many sensory and motor developmental profiles that assist in overriding the primitive reflexes, but I will focus on gross motor milestones of the first year of life. A general outline follows:

Birth-2 months

  • Raises head slightly off floor when on stomach

  • Holds head up momentarily when supported

  • Alternates kicking legs when on back

  • Arm thrusts in play

3-5 months

  • Lifts head and chest when on stomach (props on forearm)

  • Some head bobbing in supported sitting

  • Rolls from side to side

  • Rolls from stomach to back

  • Makes crawling movements

6-8 months

  • Reaches for objects on stomach

  • Pivots around when on stomach

  • Pulls self forward on stomach

  • Rolls from back to stomach

  • Moves from sitting to lying on stomach

  • Stands with support

9-11 months

  • Sits alone with trunk rotation

  • Pivots and scoots in sitting

  • Creeps or crawls

  • Pulls to stand

  • Cruises

  • Stands alone momentarily

12-15 months

  • Walks on knees

  • Walks independently without support

  • Creeps up stairs

  • Able to start, stop and turn without falling while walking

  • Crawls up on chairs or other furniture

  • Runs

Stifling or preventing these movements, especially during infancy, can have lasting negative effects. Trying to restrict, and/or persuade these motor patterns is a major cause in the retention of the primitive reflexes. Restrictive products such as lounging pillows and fixed foam seats cater to the flexed position and actually prevent extension movements. Persuading objects such as bouncers, jumpers and walkers try to force developmental motor patterns on infant bodies not yet ready for the stress that they bring. It is a natural impulse for parents to want the best for their children and to “stay ahead of the curve.” This tendency is exploited and misguided by companies that make these restrictive and persuasive devices. The novelty of the product can help generate sales for the company, but at what cost to the child’s development? Where do you start when it comes to preventing retained primitive reflexes? The best place to start is at the beginning. What I mean by this is that proactive movement is more beneficial than reactive movement. Activating the nervous system early and often, especially in extension driven patterns, will prevent retained primitive reflexes. Swaddling your infant tightly in a gently rocking bassinet with a binky in their mouth can allow you as a parent to catch up on some needed sleep or laundry, but this type of restrictive “non-movement” should not be used for long periods of time. An infant might not move much, but the movements they do make matter.

Along with educating parents and patients on external ways to integrate primitive reflexes, how else can Chiropractic care help with the remediation process? The goal of Chiropractic is to promote full expression of the nerve system at the spinal level. The nerve system controls all the movements we make. The spine is the mediator between the brain and the body, using the spinal cord, which is protected by the spine, as the courier of the brain’s functional messages of movement. The messages from the brain can get distorted along their route to the body, resulting in the expression of the message to be less than ideal. One way that the message can be distorted is by a subluxation. A subluxation is when a bone of the spine is not in proper alignment with the rest of the spine and interferes with the adjacent nerve tissues. This interference can have a negative impact on overall neurological function, especially effecting how reflexes are integrated. Chiropractors are trained specifically in techniques aimed at removing a subluxation through gentle, non-invasive, safe adjustments of the spine. With a subluxation corrected, a higher potential of neurological function can be established.

- Jarek Esarco, D.C.

Dr. Jarek Esarco is a pediatric and family wellness Chiropractor. He is an active member of the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association (ICPA). The ICPA is an organization of chiropractic family practitioners dedicated to advancing public awareness and the family wellness lifestyle. Dr. Jarek also has post-graduate certification in the HIO Specific Brain Stem Procedure technique through The TIC Institute. Dr. Jarek is happily married to his wife Regina. They live in Youngstown, Ohio with their daughter Ruby.

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