It’s a moment captured on countless cameras: You touch your newborn baby’s tiny palm and he grasps onto your finger with surprising strength, like he intends to never let you go. Maybe it’s a bit deflating to learn this fierce grasp is just a reflex, but it’s fascinating, too: Your baby is born with as many as 75 reflexes. Some disappear abruptly, usually between three and six months of age, while others are gradually replaced by more intentional behaviour.
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This cluster of reflexes is all about survival. Stroke your baby’s cheek, and she’ll turn toward your touch with an open mouth. This rooting reflex helps her find and latch onto a nipple. Brie Hoffman, who lives in Burnaby, BC, is mom to six-month-old Laura. “When Laura was a newborn,” Hoffman says, “sometimes I’d put her face up to my cheek when she was rooting, and it felt like she was kissing me.” Infants will also suck when the soft palate or mouth are stimulated. The gag reflex helps prevent choking: If something touches the back of her throat, her jaw drops and her tongue thrusts forward to push it out.
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Ever seen a baby monkey clinging to its mother? It’s easy to see a remnant of that behaviour in the Moro reflex. If your baby is laid on his back too abruptly, feels his head is unsupported or is startled by a loud noise, he’ll throw his arms and legs forward as if grabbing on for dear life. This reflex still has some use, says psychologist Penelope Leach in Your Baby & Child: It tells you he’d like to be moved more gently.
Alyson Shaw, a paediatric consultant at Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, describes this puzzling (but cute) reflex: “If you hold the baby upright with her feet touching a firm surface, she will lift her feet one after the other as if walking.” Shaw says there is no known biological explanation for this particular reflex. “Laura is doing a lot of this stepping now,” says Hoffman. “If you hold her in standing position when she’s upset, she looks like she’s stomping her foot.”
Placed face down, your baby will turn his head to the side, ensuring he can breathe. And while on his back, if a blanket falls over his head, he will twist his head and flail his arms to push it away from his face — a potential lifesaver.
Shaw describes this lesser-known reflex: “Hold the baby belly down, lying on your forearm and hand. If you gently stroke along one side of her spine, she will arch her body toward that side.”
Infant reflexes are checked in an exam soon after birth, and at subsequent well-baby visits, to rule out neurological problems. “We confirm these reflexes are symmetrical, and that they extinguish at the proper time,” Shaw says.
A version of this article appeared in our August 2012 issue with the headline “First instincts,” pp. 46.