Getting a grip - your newborn's grasp reflexes
Many of us remember the moment our newborn baby gripped our finger for the first time. Your baby curling their fingers around your finger is one of several primitive reflexes which develop in the womb and are present for weeks or months after birth until your baby develops the strength and control to make voluntary movements. In this blog, we explore three reflexes that could be described as grasp reflexes and consider how these link to your baby’s development.
What are reflexes?
Babies are born at a point in their development when they are helpless and dependent on adults, lots of development happens during pregnancy but babies have a lot to learn when they enter the world. The most active part of the brain in newborn babies is the brainstem, the primitive part of the brain that we have in common with other animals, this area controls the things we need in order to survive, breathing, heart rate and reflexes.
The primitive reflexes emerge during pregnancy, are fully developed at 40 weeks gestation and are present for some months after birth. These reflexes are not consciously controlled, they are responses to sensory stimuli and are controlled by the brainstem, the primitive area of the brain. In the weeks and months after birth postural reflexes will emerge, these are controlled by the midbrain and cerebellum. The integration of the primitive reflexes shows the development of the brain as movements and responses are controlled by higher areas of the brain over time.
The palmar grasp reflex is the reflex that causes your baby to hold and cling to your finger. When something is placed in their hand your baby will curl their fingers around the object and cling on. The grasp is strong enough to hold your baby’s weight, we don’t recommend that you try this as your baby cannot control when they let go! It is thought that this reflex is linked to our ancestors’ need for their young to cling to their mothers as they moved through the trees. When your baby moves their hands, feels objects and starts to use their hands to push up when they are on the floor the palmar grasp reflex gradually becomes integrated. Your baby will then be able to control when they open their hand to let go of an object and gradually over time, use their fingers individually and develop the skills to use pens, pencils and smaller equipment.
The sucking reflex is essentially a grasp response as your baby grasps with their mouth and sucks in order to feed. Sucking and swallowing supports the development of muscles in the lips and tongue as well as supporting breathing through the nose, which all contributes to the ability to make sounds and speak in the future. Your baby does not stop sucking but in the next few months as their control and awareness of their movements develops the sucking reflex will be integrated and sucking will become a voluntary response rather than a reflex.
Plantar grasp reflex
The plantar grasp reflex is similar to the palmar reflex but involves the toes rather than fingers. If you put your finger at the base of your baby’s toes, their toes will curl as if trying to grasp your finger. Again, it is thought that this reflex links to our ancestors and the need for their young to hold onto their mothers. The plantar reflex is gradually integrated as your baby uses their feet to help them to move, at first pushing their toes into the floor to stop themselves from moving backwards when on their tummy, then using their toes to push forwards. The integration of the plantar reflex is important as your baby’s toes need to be flat on the floor to give them a stable base as they stand and walk.
Why do reflexes matter?
The primitive reflexes have different purposes, some are concerned with birth and helping your baby to be born safely, others are concerned with feeding and some support the development of movement. Your baby develops their ability to control their movements by moving and the primitive reflexes ensure that your baby moves, with these earlier movements being in response to stimuli. The movements that your baby makes strengthen connections in the brain, as well as strengthening your baby’s muscles. When your baby moves and touches you and the things around them they develop a connection between themselves and their body and an awareness of where their body begins and ends. Not only do your baby’s reflexes give you that magical moment of their hand grasping your finger but they also help them to build their brain!
Goddard-Blythe, S. (2004). The Well Balanced Child: Movement and Early Learning. Stroud: Hawthorn Press.