Understanding Newborn Characteristics and Development

Reflexes and Responses of a Newborn

The reflexes and responses of a newborn enable him to react to his environment and to the people he sees. His reflexes are instinctual and serve to protect him, and all infants are born with the same reflexes. On the other hand, his responses are totally individual. For instance, what makes one baby smile may make another cry, depending on their personalities. On this page, you will read all about your new baby's reflexes and responses to stimuli.

Newborn Reflexes

After making the dramatic transition to life outside the womb, your baby faces the task of learning to survive in his completely new environment. Fortunately, nature has provided him with some reflexes to maximize his success until he is able to perform certain actions voluntarily. Your own instinctual responses will guide you in meeting your baby's needs.

Rooting reflex. Just as a mother's breasts are programmed to provide milk to nourish her newborn, a baby automatically knows how to respond to attempts to feed him. When you stimulate his cheek, mouth, or lips with the nipple of a breast or a bottle, his head turns toward it, his mouth opens, and his tongue moves forward. This movement of his head and mouth is called the rooting reflex and helps him find a source of nourishment. As soon as the inside of his sensitive mouth is stimulated, he automatically sucks and swallows in a coordinated fashion.

Hand-to-mouth reflex. A similar reaction, the hand-to-mouth reflex, occurs when you stroke your baby's cheek or the palm of his hand. His mouth roots and his arm flexes. After his hand and mouth find each other, he may suck his fist energetically for several minutes. This reflex helps babies suck and swallow any mucus that might have been clogging their upper airways (nose and mouth) after birth.

Righting reflex. When you slowly pull your baby to a sitting position from his back, he makes a gallant attempt to keep his head upright. This response is called the righting reflex. Because his head is heavy and his muscles are not yet strong enough to hold it steady, his head wobbles back and forth. You will quickly learn to support his head when you pick him up.

Tonic neck reflex. For the first few weeks, your baby lies with one cheek down when on his back. As his head turns to one side, the arm on the same side straightens and the opposite arm bends. This posture resembles a fencing position and is called the tonic neck reflex. Lying in this position gives your baby an opportunity to discover his own hand in the weeks to come. Because it is difficult to turn over on an outstretched arm, this reflex must fade before your baby can roll over.

Grasping and Babinski reflexes. A newborn baby has a very strong grasping reflex. When you place your finger in his palm, his fingers curl tightly around it. The automatic grasp reflex fades over the first two to three months to enable your baby to grasp objects voluntarily. Gentle pressure against the sole of his foot causes his toes to curl downward. Stroking the side of his soles causes his toes to spread and the big toe to extend upward. This Babinski reflex is the opposite of the normal adult response, in which the big toe turns downward.

Stepping reflex. Holding your baby upright and pressing the sole of one foot at a time to a firm surface elicits the stepping reflex. He alternately bends each leg as though walking. This remarkable reflex fades rapidly but reappears months later as learned voluntary behavior in preparation for true walking.

Stroking one leg causes the other to bend, cross the first leg, and push away the offending object. He moves as though to escape from a harmful stimulus.

Lifting the head. When placed on his belly, your baby lifts his head and turns it from side to side. He may even attempt to crawl. His responses make it virtually impossible for him to smother when he is lying on his stomach on a firm, flat surface. For this reason, you need not worry that your baby will have trouble breathing while prone. You should, however, be sure to keep excess bedclothes, pillows, toys, and stuffed animals out of the way, and never place your baby on a mattress that is excessively soft.

Moro reflex. The most dramatic reflex is the Moro, or startle, response. A loud noise or rough handling causes your baby to throw back his arms and legs, extend his neck, and cry out. Then he brings his arms together in an embrace and flexes his legs. Unfortunately, your baby's response disturbs him further. His own furious crying only serves to startle him again. You can help break this cycle by calmly bringing his flailing extremities close to his body; applying steady, gentle pressure with your hand against his chest and abdomen; or simply holding him securely against your own body. By three months of age, this reflex disappears.

Newborn Responses

Your baby is not simply a bundle of reflexes. Each baby is unique. From day one, your baby asserts her individuality and makes known her temperament. You will soon discern her particular style in responding to the environment.

Circle of trust. Within a few weeks, you will see her express her pleasure with coos and fleeting smiles and communicate her hunger, pain, or fear by varying cries of distress. You learn to read each other. If you are responsive to her needs, she learns to trust you. Your fostering of a sense of security encourages her to continue to reach out to you. This circle of positive interaction is gratifying to you all.

Newborns can't be spoiled. Many parents worry about spoiling their baby. Your infant, however, does not yet have the intellectual maturity to be manipulative. At birth, she does not know about people; she doesn't recognize she is a person separate from you. She is merely aware of her needs and expresses them as best as she can. Don't worry about picking up your newborn when she cries. From her perspective, she was carried about for nine months. Gathering her into your arms to comfort her only makes sense. It is probably safe to say you can't hold your baby too much during the first three months.

As your baby gets older, responding to her includes replying to her babbling sounds. Your verbal responsiveness promotes her listening skills and language recognition. Many specialists in infant development believe holding and talking to your baby are the most important contributions you can make to her future development.

It's quite gratifying to witness the baby's reponses to your voice and to your touch. But there are plenty of other ways to attract their attention, which we'll discuss on the next page -- The Newborn's Five Senses.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.