From Symphony of Reflexes, by Bonnie Brandes, M.Ed.
What Is a Reflex? Simply stated, a reflex is a neurological arc that has both a specific stimulus and a predictable response or responses. Primitive reflexes lay the foundation for the nervous system and continue to work in concert with it throughout our lives. They first appear to orchestrate the development of our nervous system and are present for our survival. Once they have played their part, ideally they step back and wait until they are needed for a quick response. Integration means the reflex arc is connected and communicating; it works to meet the nervous system’s requests. When there is an incomplete or weak connection, we call the reflex unintegrated, active, or retained. Thus the reflex may play constantly, disrupting communication coming into the brainstem and blocking some information from reaching the prefrontal lobes.
The subtle symphony of the body employs the reflexes as its instruments, using them to accompany each life almost from its inception. As human life begins to develop in the womb, the first subtle stirrings of the reflex symphony take place. These initial reflexes emerge in the embryo’s early days, sounding the opening notes of the symphony as they contribute to both the fetus’s survival and its physical and neurological development.
Setting The Stage For A Complex System
These primitive reflexes set the stage for all that is to follow, and in conjunction they prepare the way for a complex network of neurological connections. This system, in turn, brings to life a vast array of abilities that encompass cognition, motor control, psychological development, learning, and behavior.
One of the earliest reflexes to appear is a spinal reflex known as the spinal Galant reflex. This reflex begins to develop as the sacrum forms at the bottom of the spine, creating a vibration that triggers the development of auditory processing in the vestibular system. Another early arrival is the fear paralysis reflex, which prompts the fetus to become motionless or “freeze,” protecting him from potentially harmful toxins and chemicals that may gain access to the womb. This freezing action also benefits the mother, during a stressful or dangerous situation, by allowing her to focus on the emergency at hand which allows her to draw on all her resources, thereby contributing to the survival of both.
In addition to the spinal Galant and fear paralysis reflexes, other reflexes appear in utero, including the Moro, stepping, hands-grasping, Babinski, and tonic labyrinthine reflexes, among others.
An Emerging Symphony
For nine months, these developing reflexes contribute to the emerging symphony, reaching a crescendo at the moment of birth. Several reflexes play a key role in allowing the fetus to go through the birth process, making it possible for one of the more miraculous movements in the symphony to unfold. First, we have the Moro reflex, which produces cortisol and adrenaline to help activate the birth process. Then the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR) comes into play, acting much like a corkscrew as it causes the first rotation as the fetus initiates the journey down the birth canal. The Bauer crawling, spinal Perez, and spinal Galant reflexes orchestrate the further movements that are necessary for the birth to progress. After the baby is delivered, the Moro reflex triggers her first breath and prompts the infant to straighten out after months in the womb.
Once the baby is born, the creation of the symphony is far from over. Indeed, some of the participating reflexes become more evident. Soon after birth, the sucking reflex activates the movements that allow the mouth to suck and swallow, while others support defensive responses so that the newborn may alert others when she is in danger. As these various reflexes emerge during the first weeks and months of life, some reflexes are integrated, as new ones take their place. Ideally, all unfolds on schedule, with the notes being played as they have been “written,” so to speak. Reflexes emerge, contribute to myriad aspects of development, and then integrate, folding back into the system. Integration represents a completed neurological connection that works in concert with the nervous system.
An unintegrated (retained) reflex can limit or obstruct a child’s development in countless ways. There are many factors that can cause a reflex to be retained, and unfortunately, these factors are on the rise. Primitive reflexes play an important role in the development of the neurological system in all aspects of our cognition, behavior, and movement. They affect our quality of life, determine our potential, and even our happiness. For children with disabilities, a group of unintegrated or undeveloped reflexes can not only affect their ability to learn but also play a large part in other neurological conditions, such as autism and cerebral palsy.
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