This post is a condensed summary of our podcast about the risk factors for retained reflexes. To listen to the full episode scroll to the bottom of the page or find us on all of the major streaming services.
In this post we are going to take a look at the risk factors and early experiences that contribute to retained reflexes and developmental delays.
Babies are born with a set of reflexes called primitive or infant reflexes that help them survive during the first year after birth. These reflexes should disappear and are eventually replaced with mature adult reflexes. There are a lot of things that can happen during pregnancy birth and the early infancy period that interrupt this process and prevent these reflexes from developing and inhibiting properly. This leads to all sorts of problems with the way the rest of the brain and body develop and function. It affects things like emotion regulation, social awareness, focus and attention, academic performance and much more.
Please note that the brain and body are very adaptive. Most children who experience one or more of these risk factors will be perfectly fine. It usually takes a combination of multiple risk factors or one very serious one before the brain struggles to cope and you see lasting impacts.
Let's start from the very beginning, conception. The process of normal conception is actually very complex. It requires the cooperation of two healthy reproductive systems (both mom and dad). It also requires that the mother have a healthy hormonal system that can both nourish and sustain a pregnancy. The process of natural conception helps weed out both eggs and sperm that are not healthy or compatible.
Conception related risk factors:
Advanced Maternal age
Family history of developmental delays
Let's look at pregnancy. Pregnancy is broken into two stages. The first part of pregnancy is called the embryonic stage. This stages goes lasts from conception through the first 8 weeks. During this stage all of the parts of the body and nervous system are forming. At the end of that 8 weeks babies have a rudimentary version of pretty much all of their body systems. During this stage they also develop a set of reflexes called intrauterine reflexes. They keep these for a short period of time and then their primitive reflexes will replace them long before birth.
The second stage of pregnancy is called the fetal stage. This lasts from 8 weeks until birth and during this stage all of the parts of the brain and body are maturing. This is the stage when the primitive reflexes appear and where you can see most of the pregnancy related risk factors for retained reflexes.
During this stage the baby is VERY sensitive. They are going through a huge period of rapid brain and body development. They are integrating their intrauterine reflexes and developing their primitive reflexes. They are also completely dependent on their mother to meet all of their needs. Her health and wellbeing hugely impact the development of their nervous system. Any mental or physical health problems that the mother experiences impact the baby.
Pregnancy related risk factors:
High levels of emotional stress
Pregnancy related health problems like diabetes, preeclampsia or hypertension
Non pregnancy related health problems like cancer or heart disease
Trauma both physical and mental
Alcohol and drug exposure
Let's jump to birth. The impacts of pregnancy on the brain are pretty well known, but when it comes to primitive reflexes, the birth process is equally if not more important.
Many people think about labor and birth as a means to an end. Get the baby out. But the process of labor and birth is actually very important for the baby. Right after birth babies have take over all of their own body functions and their nervous system has to adapt to a world that is very different than the one they just came from. The process of labor helps them make these transitions.
Babies are also active participants in their own birth. They have to make several different positional changes in order to be born vaginally. They use different primitive reflexes to help with that process. This process also helps to strengthen their reflexes and prepare their brain and nervous system for life outside the womb.
Birth related risk factors:
Birth trauma like low heart tones or oxygen deprivation
Forceps or vacuum delivery
Breech or transverse presentation
This brings us to infancy! The first year after birth is marked by an explosion of brain and body development. Babies are going from a virtually helpless infant to being quite capable of navigating their environment. There are lots of different mental and physical developmental stages that happen in this first year.
Infancy related risk factors:
Early traumatic experiences like prolonged separation from mom, medical conditions, abuse, neglect ect...
Skipping motor stages like crawling
Repeated ear, nose and throat problems
Negative reactions to medications or vaccines
Keep in mind that most children experiences one or more of these risk factors without any long-tern negative consequences. It usually takes a combination of problems before the brain is unable to cope and you see long term changes. That being said we are seeing a huge number of children who are struggling. Several years ago when I was in post-graduate school the CDC estimated that 1 in 6 children had a diagnosable developmental delay. I don’t know where we are at now, but I would be very surprised if those numbers are shrinking.
I think that there are a lot of things contributing to this problem and I think it starts in these early stages.
If you have a child that you are concerned about then please go to my website its earlyrootstherapy.com and fill out my screening questionnaire. It will ask about all of these early experiences and current symptoms. I offer free phone consults to review them and see if there is something we can do to help your child.