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Pediatricians can explain some of the reflexes we see in newborn babies. We can even figure out some of them ourselves. An hours-old infant, when stroked on his cheek, will turn his head to that side and open his mouth wide. Think about a baby bird when Momma bird arrives at the nest with a juicy worm. Nursing mothers learn to stroke the baby’s cheek nearest the breast she is going to make available to the baby. A healthy baby will turn his head to that side and open his mouth very wide.
Clearly, this is a survival reflex. He must eat in order to live, so he is programmed to do his share of the work to see that that happens. Often an infant will reach with both hands for a bottle during a first feeding. He may not be strong enough to hold the bottle yet, but it surely is sweet to see those tiny fingers wrapped around a bottle as he suckles. By four months of age, the baby will likely have stopped these automatic behaviors as he has become better at finding the breast or the bottle.
There are other reflexes you may notice. One is the moro, or startle, reflex. You will likely see this when a loud noise occurs near your infant or when he is suddenly without clothes or a blanket. His tiny arms will shoot out to his sides and his hands will curl into a “C” shape. He will then pull his arms back toward his torso and close his hands. Most infants will slowly begin to whimper and then to cry.
Some new moms think the baby is having a seizure, but one way to know the difference is that the startle reflex lasts only a few seconds while a seizure will continue much longer. This reflex generally disappears between 2 and 4 months of age.
The palmar grasp is another of those automatic reflexes we see in newborn babies. If you place your finger against your baby’s open hand, he will grip it tightly. If you attempt to pull your finger away, he will hold on even more tightly. Stroking the back of his hand will usually get him to release your finger or some other object.
Some doctors think this action may have to do with the bonding between parent and baby. Is there anything more special than to have this tiny creature you helped create hold on to your finger like he will never let go? Look for this action to disappear between 4 and 6 months of age. Enjoy it while it lasts!
Most babies are experts at the sucking reflex at birth. We know that some babies suck their thumb before birth. By 2 or 3 months of age, sucking is no longer automatic. Baby now has learned what he needs to do and how to do it to get the nourishment he so needs.
There is also a tongue thrust reflex that protects an infant from chocking. You may notice it if you put a spoon or other object in your wee one’s mouth. The tongue will work hard at thrusting it out. I have even seen tiny infants use the tongue to push a pacifier or a bottle nipple out of the mouth. Look for this to cease between 4 & 6 months. Enjoy the automatic as well as the learned actions of your infant.
©2011 Brenda Holland-Robinson