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Unlocking Children’s Potential: Reflex Integration

What is Reflex Integration?

At POTS, our team of pediatric occupational therapists constantly seeks innovative ways to support the development and well-being of our young clients. Reflex integration is an approach we've found very successful in boosting the skills of babies and older children. For babies, often the impact of reflexes is obvious as they have little voluntary movement, but for older children, the impact can be more subtle, such as constantly sliding out of a chair or having difficulty remaining upright while looking at the blackboard and writing.

baby sucking thumb and baby in fencing posture

Reflexes are involuntary, automatic responses that are crucial for survival and early development. Most familiar to us, babies rely on the sucking reflex to eat as soon as they are born. However, when they persist too long or fail to be incorporated into normal movement patterns, they can interfere with development. For example, if a child adopts a “fencing posture” (ATNR) every time their head is turned, they will have difficulty with balance, and coordinating the two sides of their body, which can in turn limit their ability to feed themselves with a spoon or get dressed.

What are reflexes important in development?

There are two kinds of reflexes that can support or hinder development that we consider in OT, primitive reflexes and postural reflexes. Here is what you need to know:

baby in moro and palmar grasp reflex

1. Primitive Reflexes are the first set of automatic movements that appear in infancy. They literally get the baby moving from birth and serve as the foundation for more complex movements.

Some reflexes that we look at are the Moro reflex (startle response), rooting reflex (infant turns in response to the cheek being stroked), and palmar grasp reflex (infant grasps your finger as you move it across the palm).

In typical development, these reflexes are gradually subsumed (“integrated”) into voluntary movement patterns and your child develops more refined motor skills. For example, at first, a baby will automatically hold a finger when you swipe the palm, later they might grasp your finger, but they are not obligated to. This is incorporated into more sophisticated movements, such as grabbing a toy that they see.

baby reflex
Postural Reflexes

2. Postural Reflexes: As the nervous system matures, postural reflexes gradually replace primitive reflexes to enable your child to remain upright, aligned, and stable to serve as a base for coordinated skillful movement.

The integration of postural reflexes, such as righting reactions and equilibrium reactions, is crucial for maintaining balance, posture, and coordination.

Why is Reflex Integration Important in Pediatric Occupational Therapy?

boy drawing on paper

1. Motor Skill Development: In order to help children become independent in everyday life skills such as walking, eating, dressing, and drawing, occupational therapists tap into reflexes to support fundamental motor skills and eliminate residual reflexes that may interfere with normal movement.

boy sliding off on a chair

2. Cognitive Function: Reflex integration is closely linked to cognitive development. Unintegrated reflexes can limit a child's ability to focus, process information, and engage in tasks that require sustained attention.

3. Emotional Regulation: Addressing reflex challenges can contribute to improved self-regulation and social engagement.

4. Sensory Processing: Reflexes are intertwined with the sensory system. At POTS we use reflex integration techniques to enhance sensory processing to help children function

If you are concerned that unintegrated reflexes or awkward movement patterns are impeding your child’s motor development, student skills or emotional regulation be sure to consult with your occupational therapist.


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