A Polyvagal Approach to Primitive Reflex Integration

In the years I’ve been working with neuroplasticity, I’ve lost count of the number of parents who want to know the % their child’s reflexes are retained, as well as EXACTLY which reflexes are retained.

It is really important to know that we are not JUST looking at an exact percentage! We’re looking at the full picture. In fact, I do not even NEED to test a child’s (or their parent’s) reflexes in order to start working with them – I can see what I need to do by the time they’ve sat down in the room. The reflex tests are really only for the benefit of watching progress – but we also do that by watching behaviour, emotions and cognition from the time a child heads off with a new set of movements to work with.

Additionally, it’s important to understand that if we do not see a reflex reaction when we test, it doesn’t mean it’s not there: we also look at whether a body is compensating and trying to hide the presence of a reflex (very common in children with a strong fear paralysis reflex). It’s also possible that a reflex has not even emerged yet, which is why I rarely test for a huge range of reflexes initially.

Also, while a programme of movements is important, it is useful for parents to know that by working WITH your child, you’ll almost certainly see the best results. If you push your child through a programme of movements that are impossible for them to grasp, all you’ll do is stress yourself and your child.

A few years back, I was contacted by someone who was concerned their child wasn’t making progress with another practitioner. After doing some delving, I discovered that this parent was putting their child through around half an hour of movements every single day. Rather than progressing, this child had “regressed” significantly – massive meltdowns and zoning out at school – due to the parent working ON rather than WITH.

Obviously, we all want quick fixes, but neuroplasticity is NOT a quick fix, and it really isn’t something you can force on someone without attuning to their nervous system.

I love it when parents are fascinated by my work and want to give it a go too. By jumping onto my bench and experiencing passive movements for themselves, they are learning how it feels, which in turn helps them to deliver those movements more effectively for their child – asking for feedback while working with.

There are some children who simply cannot go through a primitive reflex assessment. That is fine! As I mentioned above, I do not need to test reflexes to know what we need to do. Very often, I have my gym ball with me. This is a great piece of equipment because children instinctively know how to use it to integrate their own reflexes. Sometimes they’ll sit on it and bounce, and other times they’ll use it to propell themselves around. This gives me a lot more information than merely getting a child to go through reflex tests: it gives me important information on how to calm their nervous systems.

My 55cm gym ball – the most popular activity in my clinic!

The point of me writing this post is that in order to make the very best progress, the following factors need to be in place:

  • Parents need to invest in the process
  • This is about working WITH your child, not ON them
  • Do not fixate on reflexes – this is a whole brain/body approach, and your connection with your child is fundamental for their progress
  • Allow your child to lead you – watch for signs of them trying to integrate their own reflexes.
  • Consistency is key. You cannot stop/start or only contact your therapist when it suits you – you need to make a commitment to do movements 5-7 times a week with your child and visit your therapist every 4-6 weeks on average

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