Retained reflexes, developmental milestones, and learning

I adore watching newborn babies make involuntary movements in their first few months of life. These involuntary movements are primitive reflexes, and are governed by the brainstem – the only part of our brain that is mature when a baby is born.

Very soon, babies start to be able to control their movements, and start being able to explore in the world. A baby has to inhibit primitive reflexes before moving to the next stage of development.

These videos are a fantastic demonstration of how we should learn to roll and then crawl.


In some cases, babies do not get onto their hands and knees and push up to crawling like this. Some babies get around by rolling or “bum shuffling”.

Is this “normal”? Should we worry if we have a bum shuffler? Take a look at this video: these children will more than likely find it impossible to concentrate for any length of time at school, and will develop vision difficulties.

We must give babies every opportunity to cycle through the developmental stages themselves – that means no props to sit them in, no walkers, no bouncers, and as little time in car seats and even slings/carriers as possible.

Allowing a baby the freedom to work it out for themselves helps them hard wire their brains for academic learning further down the line. This is why, when I work with older children with dyslexia, for example, it is important to go back to basics, putting the foundations for learning in place. There is no point in JUST addressing the ATNR reflex, for example, because this can only integrate if the preceding reflexes are firmly integrated.

Integrating primitive reflexes ensures the foundation for emotional regulation, efficient sensory processing, postural stability and learning.
An introduction to primitive reflexes

As demonstrated by Baby Liv in the video, the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR) is a reflex that helps babies learn how to start crawling by rocking back and forth on hands and knees. It strengthens the core, and is a pre-cursor to the integration of the ATNR reflex. Crawling is an extremely important step of development because the associated movements myelinate and strengthen connections in the corpus callosum, which is the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres.

In fact, it is very important to have a well-connected corpus callosum in order to learn how to read and decode efficiently, as well as to be able to write numbers and letters the right way around and even to ride a bike. Children who have not learned to cross crawl (opposite hand and knee on the floor at the same time) do not have such dense neural pathways, which often leads to problems with convergence and near and far vision.

There is an interesting theory that a child is ready to learn to read once they loose their top front teeth, and indeed Steiner schools look at tooth loss as an indication of readiness for learning to read and write. I do not know how true this is, but it is true that children with neuro-developmental delays often lose teeth much later. Please take this statement with a pinch of salt, however, as I’m not sure how much peer-reviewed science there is behind it – but there is indeed plenty of anecdotal evidence. Additionally, several children that I’ve worked with have suddenly started losing milk teeth after starting primitive reflex work.

Primitive reflexes are like climbing a staircase: if we miss any steps, our ascent up the staircase is not as efficient. Retained reflexes mean that a person may struggle to do things that others assimilate naturally and effortlessly. Not only that, but the movements used in Rhythmic Movement Training are simple and fun – and children often start to ask for them every day, because their bodies NEED these movements.

Here are a few fun activities to try yourself, or to ask school to include in PE lessons:

  • play row, row, row your boat with another person, holding hands and touching feet
  • get children to cross crawl as much as possible, through tunnels etc
  • do push ups against a wall
  • do a snow angel movement on your back
  • use a balance ball to sit on while you work/watch tv

A child who bum shuffles, or misses the crawling stage altogether has missed an important stage of development, and will almost certainly have an active STNR reflex. If you recognise this situation, you can always book in for an appointment with me via Book Appointment – Move2Connect

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