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  • Emily Prentice

Lookout: 7 Signs That Your Child May Have Retained Reflexes

“Chronological age and intelligence are not the only criteria for learning success. Developmental readiness for formal education is equally important. Developmental testing of motor skills is carried out regularly in the first year of life, but when responsibility moves from the domain of medicine (midwife, pediatrician, and health visitor) to education at the time of school entry, a child’s developmental readiness in terms of physical development is not assessed as a matter of routine.” – Attention, Balance and Coordination: the A.B.C. of learning success by Sally Goddard Blythe

We have a growing problem in the education system that Sally Goddard Blythe highlights so beautifully in the quote above: our children are expected to perform academically based on their age rather than their developmental maturity. When they struggle or fail, we look at their symptoms rather than the underlying problems. What is worse, most of the professionals working with these children do not even know how to assess for developmental maturity. I created this list to help point out a few of the main signs that I see in children with Neuro-Developmental Delay.

Please note that retained reflexes cannot be diagnosed by symptoms alone. The only way to know for sure if your child has retained reflexes it to take your child to a licensed practitioner and have a diagnostic assessment done.

1. They overreact to loud noises or sudden changes.

This is a classic symptom of a retained Moro reflex. The Moro is the infant startle reflex. It is extremely sensitive to sudden changes in head position or any of the five senses (light, sound, touch, taste and smell). When the Moro is triggered, it sets off a physiological fight-or-flight response and temporarily blocks access to the higher levels of the brain. Children with a retained Moro can experience this surge of stress hormones during seemingly inconsequential events. This can make them overly sensitive to unexpected changes like a loud noise or bright light. Most children react negatively but some have adapted to this surge of hormones and use it as an “adrenaline rush”. They may become overly excitable and hyperactive rather than fearful, angry and defensive.

2. They sit with their legs in the W position.

Recently, there has been a big push to inform parents of the dangers of W-sitting (concerns about bone and muscle development) and to encourage them to correct this behavior in their children. The problem is that for most children this sitting position is more than just a bad habit. This position provides a wide stable base for children who are moving and twisting while playing on the floor. Children who have an immature postural system (system that allows them to maintain balance and stability) have less control over their body and need more stability. W-sitting is also a very comfortable position for children with a retained Symmetric Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR). The STNR breaks up the upper and lower halves of the body. When one half is flexed the other half is extended. Children with a retained STNR often sit like this because they want their legs flexed while their arms are extended.

3. They are easily distracted.

Children with a retained Moro reflex often struggle to tune out irrelevant information. They have trouble focusing when there is extra noise, movement, even touch (itchy tag, tight pants, ect…) because these things pull their attention and may even elicit a fight-or-flight response. Children with a retained Moro often become hyper vigilant for things that may trigger a Moro, this can make it very difficult for them to focus.

4. They rest their head on their desk during school

Often times, primitive reflexes and postural immaturity can be seen most acutely during school. Many children with retained reflexes learn to accommodate them in subtle ways. They are able to override the outward appearance of the reflexes fairly well until they are required to use their brain to do other things, like math. Children with retained reflexes must adjust their position in order to accommodate these reflexes.

This is a classic compensation position for a child with a retained Asymmetric Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR). The ATNR is elicited when the head turns. As the head turns, the arm on that side extends and the other arm flexes. Children with a retained ATNR often assume this position when they are writing.

Depending on the child and which reflexes they have retained, they may have a variety of "poor" posture positions that they find comfortable for school. They may tuck their legs up under their body or lay their head on the desk. For children with retained reflexes maintaining "good" posture is exhausting and many are incapable of sitting upright and focusing on school at the same time. This is true for children regardless of how intelligent they are or appear. Many very intelligent children have retained reflexes and often get labeled as "lazy" when they assume these positions or when they struggle in one area of school but not another.

5. They have trouble sitting still.

It may seem surprising, but the ability to sit still is actually quite complex, particularly if a child is trying to learn something while they are staying still. Children with aberrant reflexes do not have a system that is designed for sitting still. Depending on which reflexes are still present, they may have a variety of signals that are constantly telling their brain to move into different positions. For example, a child with a retained Spinal Galant reflex is going to want to move their hips any time the lumbar region of their back is stroked. This happens a lot when they are seated in a chair or even when they are wearing certain clothes.

6. They are hyperactive.

Hyperactivity can be caused by a number of reflexes and is often cause by a combination of several things. Hyperactivity can be caused by a retained Moro if the child has learned to cope with it by becoming very excitable. It can be caused by a lack of postural control which gives a child good control of their body. Keep in mind that balance and body control are easiest in motion. It is much harder to maintain balance while doing something slowly. Children may be hyperactive because it is much easier for them to control their movements while they are in motion.

7. They toe walk.

Children walk on their tip-toes for a variety of reasons; some children walk on the tip toes because they are having fun or they experimenting with balance and body control. For others it may be a sign of a bigger problem. One reflex that can lead to toe walking is the plantar reflex. The plantar reflex causes the toes to grip when the pad of the foot is stroked. Children with a retained planter may toe walk to accommodate that reflex.

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