A reflex is an automatic physical response to a trigger that occurs without us thinking about it. For example, if something suddenly passes close to your face, you will blink. This is a reflex.
We are born with a set of reflexes that are specific to a newborn baby: they are crucial to our early development, but an older child or adult does not need them.
When we are born, our brains are not yet neurologically mature enough to allow us to make even the most rudimentary of decisions for ourselves. Neither are we capable of seeing very far, of controlled movement, or of balance: these abilities only develop throughout the first year of life. This development process is facilitated by a number of reflexes that are present at birth. These so-called primitive reflexes slowly allow us to gain control of our bodies and our sensory systems, whilst also helping to ensure our survival through these very vulnerable months.
The primitive reflexes emerge in a sequential order, each teaching us a certain function. Once a primitive reflex has done its job, it becomes redundant and should disappear (or inhibit). This is a gradual process, but it is generally accepted that by the age of three, a child should not show evidence of primitive reflexes.
If the primitive reflexes do not inhibit, the child has a neurological immaturity that will affect subsequent development.
The precise way the individual can be affected depends on the specific reflexes that have been retained (see links on left for more about each reflex), but also on the natural personality and talents of the person. Some people will suffer only minor affects; for others the retention of the primitive reflexes can have a profound influence on their emotional and physical behaviour, and their ability to function at an age appropriate level.
In children, examples of the difficulties experienced if primitive reflexes are retained include - volatile, stroppy behaviour - anxiety or episodes of panic - overly shy or clingy behaviour - hyperactivity or constant fidgeting - excessive tiredness - sensory processing or integration problems - distractibility or inability to concentrate/focus - dislike of bright lights or loud noises - dislikes being touched or fussy with clothing - balance or coordination issues - difficulty with reading or writing - a bright child who underperforms at school - speech problems - motion/travel sickness - sleep problems - prolonged bed wetting or bladder problems
As the child matures and becomes an adult, they will probably learn to compensate for the some of the above affects to manage life well. However, they are likely to still exhibit some of these traits, and may suffer from
- "free-floating" anxiety or disproportionate stress - panic attacks - physical symptoms of adrenal fatigue - overly aggressive or controlling behaviour - they may feel that they are misunderstood, or "stuck".
An adult with retained primitive reflexes will often be the person who insists on doing everything "their way" and becomes moody when this does not happen.
See the links on the left for more specific information about the major primitive reflexes: the Moro response, the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR), the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex, and the Spinal Galant reflex.