Primitive reflexes... what are they?
Does your child have difficulty concentrating? While doing homework, does he or she fidget, have trouble holding still, stare into space, before quickly becoming tired and losing all motivation?
Do you know that these behaviors could be rooted in the persistence of primitive reflexes that have not matured during early childhood development?
What is a reflex?
Are you familiar with the reflex hammer test, which the doctor performs at the knee?
It is a good illustration of what a reflex is: an involuntary reaction (the leg stretching) to a given stimulus (the hammer's contact with the knee).
What about primitive reflexes?
Primitive reflexes have the particularity of being managed by the most primitive part of our brain, the brain stem, even before birth.
The brain stem is responsible for the survival instinct: it ensures that our body is safe. It is the oldest part of the brain, the part we have in common with reptiles (hence its former name "reptilian brain"). This part takes care of the automatic functions of our nervous system: breathing, heartbeat, digestion, muscle tension, etc. It is the part of the brain that is responsible for the automatic functions of our nervous system.
For example, a primitive reflex is an innate reaction (managed by the brain stem) of the infant to a stimulus:
- A newborn baby grasping your finger firmly and holding it so tightly that it won't let go.
- A baby in your arms who hears a sudden noise, jumps up and his body expands (takes on the shape of a banana).
What's the point of this?
When properly integrated, primitive reflexes allow the child to behave not from an involuntary movement (reaction) but from a voluntary movement (action).
They allow the pattern of movements to be created, giving the child the ability to move, develop muscle tone, and hone their coordination. It also helps in the development of visual, vestibular and spatial organization, among many other things.
These movement patterns are the essential foundation for learning, concentration, growth and development.
If we imagine the neural network as a large spider's web, primitive reflexes would be long threads forming the base, the support of the web, upon which the other threads will develop.
They provide a solid base upon which the cognitive, emotional and physical capacities of the child and the future adult will develop.
How does it work?
Primitive reflexes have a three-phase life cycle:
Emergence: This may occur before birth. It is the moment when the baby, in response to a stimulus, will have an involuntary reaction (the reflex).
Exploration: this is when the baby experiences the reflex.
Integration (or inhibition): this is the appropriation of the reflex by the brain. It is a crucial step in the acquisition of voluntary movement.
A fourth phase can also arise: remanence. This will make the reflex reappear, even a long time after its inhibition. This can happen following a situation of intense stress, trauma, shock or other.
Thus, even if a reflex is well integrated at the base, it can come back to affect your life if your brain goes into "survival" mode following a distressing event.
Where does it all come from?
Up until the 1980s, the usefulness of primitive reflexes on child development was unknown. We observed these reflexes by testing the infants at birth (as pediatricians always do), but nothing came of it.
Peter Huxley-Blythe (1925-2013), an English psychologist, is credited with being the first to suggest that primitive reflexes affect the rest of one's life, especially when they are not inhibited.
As early as 1975, Blythe focused on studying the role of the central nervous system in behavioral and learning disorders.
But... what difference does it make?
In order to ensure optimal overall development of the toddler and child, each primitive reflex must be integrated in a specific order.
Each inhibited reflex prepares the ground for the next reflex to be integrated. A poorly integrated reflex cannot serve as a basis for subsequent reflexes.
What are the consequences?
Since primitive reflexes serve to lay the foundations of the neural network, upon which other connections will rely, their non-integration can have consequences in several spheres of life.
Cognitive: Learning (cognition) is based on the brain's ability to make connections between neurons. The primitive, non-integrated reflexes assume incomplete basic neuronal connections; making it difficult for the brain to create new connections, new learning.
It's like trying to build a house on an unstable foundation, on soft ground: you can do it, but the foundation can collapse at any time.
Emotional: As mentioned above, the primitive brain, from which the reflexes of the same name emerge, is the protection and security center of the human brain. Thus, poorly integrated reflexes can affect the emotional balance of the child, and of the adult to come. This can cause self-esteem and self- confidence to suffer.
This can result in children who are easily irritable, have a "short fuse", are hypersensitive, controlling, opposing, and can have so-called "intense" behaviors.
Physical: In terms of movement, primitive reflexes promote the transition from involuntary (reflex) to voluntary (controlled) movement. Poorly integrated reflexes affect coordination, proprioception, balance and spatial perception, among others.
This can be seen in children displaying restless, impulsive, hyperactive behavior. They cannot hold still, continuously change their posture in their chair, sit in a w-shape, march down stairs like loudly, etc.
Research has shown that these "blockages" could lead to a wide range of disorders: learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADHD), dyspraxia, dyslexia, dysorthographia... and many others!
What can disrupt the integration of a reflex?
Several causes can be at the origin of the non-inhibition of a primitive reflex: stress of the mother, a difficult delivery with or without C-section, an emotional shock, a premature birth, an impeded motor development, an accident, etc.
And there solutions?
Yes, there are!
Several methods can help in the integration of primitive reflexes. Most of them involve sensory stimulation, movement or isometric pressure. These techniques are designed to stimulate the function and coordination of specific muscle chains to allow the body to inhibit the reflex response and integrate the movement pattern.
Reflex movements and their inhibition offer a new reading of various disorders: ADHD, ASD, enuresis, hyperactivity, opposition, impulsivity, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, as well as learning and behavioral difficulties. Their understanding allows the emergence of new strategies to improve the quality of life of sufferers and their entourage.
We are moving from survival mode to life choice!
Are you familiar with the Rhythmic Movement Training (RMT) program? It is a technique for re-educating reflexes through movement and rhythm with simple and effective exercises. These movements mimic the rocking movement that babies make to move from one stage of motor development to another.
These movements make it possible to revisit periods of development where reflexes have not been fully integrated in order to complete their maturation and to remove blockages in attention, learning and behavioral difficulties.