Many of your cutie's earliest movements are out of his control. Learn what your newborn's reflexes are all about.
Put your finger on your baby's palm and he'll grip it. Hold your sweet pea upright and he'll move his legs as though he's walking. You can even place a finger on one side of his cheek and he'll swivel his head in that direction. Although you may think those actions are clear evidence that your baby is one smart cookie (of course he is!), they're actually reflexes, or involuntary responses infants are born with. But why? "Some reflexes, such as feeding and sucking, are key to survival, but others occur without a whole lot of explanation," says Kirsten Weltmer, M.D., a pediatrician with Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, in Kansas City, Missouri. We've got all the info you need on your child's awesome auto responses.
Trigger Your finger (or anything else) brushes against your newborn's cheek, lip, or the corner of her mouth.
Response She turns her head toward the side you stroked and opens her mouth wide like a baby bird. This is how infants seek out Mom's nipple or the bottle when they're ready to feed.
Why it happens You can probably guess. "The rooting reflex ensures that your baby gets her nutrition," says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., a pediatrician in Westlake Village, California, and author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top Questions About Babies and Toddlers.
How long it lasts This reflex vanishes around 4 months, Dr. Altmann says. Eventually your little one will be an expert nipple-finder, so she won't have to root around as much.
Moro (aka startle)
Trigger Baby hears an unfamiliar loud noise (there's the doorbell!), or the position of her head suddenly changes.
Response Your cutie looks surprised, and both her arms shoot out to the side while her hands open wide, with thumbs extended up; then she draws her arms back toward her body while closing her hands. She usually follows this routine by making an (impossibly charming) pouty face and crying.
Why it happens No one knows for sure, but "one theory suggests that this is an evolutionary response left over from the time when babies had to cling to their mother," Dr. Weltmer says. If an infant slipped out of her mother's grasp, the startle response might have alerted Mom to quickly grab her. (Yes, before strollers and carriers arrived on the scene, being a mama was even more strenuous!)
How long it lasts This so-called Moro reflex (named after Ernst Moro, the Austrian pediatrician who discovered it), is in effect at birth and disappears somewhere around 2 to 4 months. Some parents mistake it for a seizure, but it's easy enough to decipher the difference. "The Moro reflex lasts for only a few seconds; a seizure usually continues for a good deal longer," Dr. Altmann explains.
Trigger Hold your babe upright with his feet resting on your lap, a changing table, or any other flat surface.
Response He'll lift his feet and place them back down as if he's walking.
Why it happens "We're not positive, but because we walk on our feet, it may be that we have an inborn knowledge of the activity," says Cheryl Wu, M.D., a pediatrician at LaGuardia Place Pediatrics, in New York City. Whatever the reason behind his motion, watching your baby do his two-step is fun! And practice sessions won't hurt your cutie's legs, no matter what Grandma says. "As long as you support his head, it's okay to let your infant try it," Dr. Altmann assures. Keep your videocam handy, Mom!
How long it lasts Expect this reflex to stick around for two to three months after birth. In about a year, your little guy will be walking for real.
Trigger Lightly place a finger or small object against Baby's open palm.
Response She grips it as if she never wants to let go, and if you attempt to pull away, she holds on even tighter. How's that for showing Mommy some love? If you need her to release an object, lightly stroke the side of her palm or the back of her hand.
Why it happens "This reflex, we think, fosters interaction between parents and infants," Dr. Weltmer says. "It helps to establish a connection and is gratifying for Mom and Dad." Is there anything better than holding hands?
How long it lasts That strong clutch is around from day one and may persist until Baby is 4 to 6 months.
Trigger Rub your finger against the sole of your sweetie's foot.
Response His little piggies begin to curl around your finger. Cuteness!
Why it happens Experts aren't exactly sure why those tiny digits come equipped with a kung fu grip, but it may be a residual reflex from our primate ancestors, who used their feet to grasp tree branches, says Frank Berenson, M.D., a pediatric neurologist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Tickle your little monkey!
How long it lasts The plantar grasp is present at birth and usually goes away by 9 months. Don't be surprised, though, if it lasts up until 1 year.
Trigger You probably won't discover this one by accident. "You have to hold the baby on her stomach, face down, and support her head and neck," Dr. Weltmer says. Then stroke either side of her lower back.
Response She swings her bottom toward the side that was stroked, almost as if she's dancing for you. Watch out, Beyonc?!
Why it happens Experts have no clue why this reflex exists, but it sure makes a cool party trick.
How long it lasts Enjoy this newborn skill while you can. The Galant reflex vanishes by 4 to 6 months.
Trigger You know that Superman game your husband likes to play with the baby, the one that totally freaks you out, but he does it anyway? That flying-baby stunt is an example of the parachute reflex in action. "It occurs when you hold your child facing downward and suspended over the floor and then you swoosh him down," explains Dr. Berenson.
Response Your baby extends his arms and spreads his hands as though he's trying to stop himself from falling.
Why it happens Your peanut is protecting himself. "It's a safety response to prevent him from collapsing right on his face," Dr. Berenson says. The parachute reflex comes in especially handy when your child starts taking those first Frankenstein steps. Spreading his arms helps him stay steady when he's about to stumble (which, by the way, will be often!).
How long it lasts It usually appears at 6 to 8 months, when infants develop more motor control, Dr. Berenson says. This reflex remains with us throughout life because it's a handy security mechanism. Remember the last time you almost did a face plant? 'Nuff said.
Trigger A pacifier, your finger (or even your nose!) touches the roof of your babe's mouth.
Response Your little guy closes his lips and begins sucking.
Why it happens Like the rooting reflex, this one is all about survival and helps your munchkin get his sustenance, says Dr. Altmann.
How long it lasts After about the age of 2 to 3 months, sucking is no longer automatic, Dr. Wu says. But your baby may still keep it up. "Not only does the sucking reflex ensure that a child is bonding with Mom and able to feed, but it's also comforting," she explains. "So some babies rely on a thumb or pacifier to soothe themselves after the instinct goes away."
Trigger Baby lies on her back and turns her head to one side.
Response She straightens one arm out in the direction her head is facing and bends the arm that's behind her,
Dr. Berenson says. It looks as if she's holding a sword and ready to fence.
Why it happens This sleeping stance stumps experts, Dr. Berenson says. But he speculates that it may have a protective role. "The arm that's up and flexed behind your baby may be in that position to guard her head and face," he says.
How long it lasts You can continue to snap photos of your baby's precious fencing pose until she's 4 to 6 months old, when it disappears.
Trigger Something out of the ordinary, such as that first taste of rice cereal, touches your angel's lips or goes into his mouth
Response Your child's tongue thrusts forward automatically, barring the food or object from entering.
Why it happens "The tongue thrust prevents your baby from choking," Dr. Wu explains. It's also a good indicator that he isn't ready for real food yet. "This reflex has to go away before a child can start solids," Dr. Wu says. "Otherwise, he'd only push the food out of his mouth."
How long it lasts Expect this instinct to fade away by the time your honey is about 4 to 6 months old.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.
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