Preventing Developmental Delays
This post is a condensed summary of our podcast about preventing retained reflexes and developmental delays. To listen to the full episode scroll to the bottom of the page or find us on all of the major streaming services.
Hello! This post is all about prevention. I get asked by a lot of the parents I work with, what things they can do to prevent their other, or future children from having retained reflexes and developmental delays. I'll use this post to dive into what I tell them. I am going to build on one of my earlier posts about complications and risk factors.
That being said, its important to realize that many of these things are out of our control. Take me for example; I am very aware of all of the risk factors and things to do to prevent developmental delays and when I was pregnant with my son I did all of them. He is almost two and still struggling to integrate his startle reflex. So just know that you can make all of the “right” decisions and still not have control over the outcome. I will get into the things that you do have control over and some of the most important areas to focus on if this is something you are concerned about.
So let’s look at the beginning and what parents can do before they even get pregnant. If you read my complications post, you may remember me talking about certain conception risk factors. Now keep in mind that a risk factor isn’t definitive. The brain is very adaptive and most kids experience multiple risk factors before experiencing any long-term consequences. Certain things like infertility and threatened miscarriage are risk factors. This is because natural conception is a complex process that requires the cooperation of two health systems both mom and dad. Mom’s physical and hormonal health are particularly important before conception.
If you want to reduce risk factors before pregnancy, mom’s should focus on getting themselves as physically healthy as possible AND even more importantly, reducing their stress load. Its not helpful if you get hyper fixated on your physical health and drive yourself crazy. Finding a good balance of physical and mental health before conception is a great place to start.
This is going to hold true all the way through pregnancy and infancy. Physical and mental health both before and during pregnancy are hugely impactful on the baby’s development. I want to start with mom’s mental health, because it is one of the biggest contributors to baby’s mental health.
During pregnancy a mother’s nervous system dictates how their baby’s nervous system with develop and function. A mom who is experiencing a lot of anxiety during pregnancy will have a baby whose nervous system is more sensitive and reactive to stress. After birth, mother’s with high anxiety are more likely to have trouble creating secure attachments with their infants. Babies are particularly sensitive to emotions and learn how to interact with the world based on their early relationships and attachments. As children get older, a mother with uncontrolled anxiety tends to pass that outlook on to her children. This often negatively impacts her relationship with dad, and they are more likely to experience marital conflict and separation or divorce. Unresolved marital conflict is a huge source of anxiety for children so its easy to see how a mother’s mental health can cascade into big problems for children.
Now if you’re a mom who is already prone to anxiety and you hear this its probably not helping you to feel better! It is really important to remember that takings steps towards good mental health has the same spiral effect in a positive direction.
Children are also very resilient and even taking small steps to treat anxiety can have huge positive affects on your own feelings, on your relationship with your spouse and on your relationship with your children. If there was only one thing to focus on to prevent developmental delays I would recommend maternal mental health.
If you are struggling with anxiety any any other mental health problems, there are LOTS of treatment options. Dr. Psych Mom has a fantastic blog and podcast where she talks about lots of different mental health and relationship topics. She also has a network of therapists that work in a lot of different states.
I don’t work with parents in this area, but it is a topic I am very interested in. If this is something that you struggle with, there are a lot of avenues to take to get treatment.
Things like: cognitive-behavior therapy with a trauma informed therapist, EMDR, and brain spotting, prescription medications in conjunction with therapy can also be hugely helpful. Recently I have also seen some very promising research on the use of psychedelic substances in combination with therapy for a variety of different mental health problems. Honestly, if it were me, I would start with an individual therapist who utilizes psychedelic substances therapeutically. I think that it is really promising and likely the future of mental health treatment, BUT if that is a little too out there for you, then a traditional therapist is also a great place to start, particularly if they incorporate something like brain spotting.
So back to pregnancy health. The other important factor is physical health. During pregnancy, moms are building a whole person and that includes their nervous system. It is important to get plenty of good nutrition. This helps baby get everything they need to develop properly. During pregnancy, babies have a way of siphoning off the nutrients they need. Getting good nutrition is as important for mom as it is for baby. They other thing that good nutrition helps with during pregnancy is preventing the types of health problems that contribute to developmental delays like preeclampsia and uncontrolled diabetes.
Health problems in pregnancy are also more likely to lead to risk factors during birth such as induction, birth trauma, vacuum or forceps delivery and cesarean. These are all risk factors for retained reflexes and developmental delays which I go into more detail on why in my earlier complications post. You can see how poor nutrition and physical health can also lead to a negative spiral, just like mental health.
This leads me to another important prevention factor during pregnancy: your care providers. The place where you decide to give birth and the care providers you choose is the #1 factor for whether or not you will experience certain birth complications like a cesarean. There are certain hospitals in the U.S. that have a 50%, 60% or 70% c-section rate. This isn’t because 70% of women need a c-section. Its either because that hospital is performing a lot of unnecessary surgeries OR because they are providing the type of care that leads to a lot of complications and necessary c-sections.
If you don’t already know, I am also a certified midwives assistant and have worked in midwifery care for over 10 years. I’ve attended hundreds of births in homes, hospitals and birthcenters and provided thousands of hours of prenatal and postpartum care. I was trained under the midwifery model of care which is a model that focuses on prevention of problems, and every aspect of a mother’s health and wellbeing. The goal is to safely lower intervention rates and improve both immediate and long-term health outcomes for moms and babies.
Now there are plenty of doctors and that practice this type of care; it isn’t exclusive to midwives. This type of care is an important factor when we are talking about prevention. The midwifery model of care goes a long way in preventing complications and reducing intervention use. If you’re pregnant and wanting to reduce your child risk factors then a supportive low intervention care provider is key.
Aside from being proactive about your own mental health, your choice in care provider is probably the next best thing you can do for prevention.
Remember that primitive reflexes develop during pregnancy, they are solidified during the birth process, and then they integrate within the first year. Some of them, like the Moro reflex, should disappear within the first several months after birth. So the most important preventative things are likely going to take place during pregnancy and birth.
There are some things you can do after birth. In order to work through reflexes, babies need time moving and using their body. It is movement and motor development that helps them work through their reflexes and move into the next phases of development. Young infants need plenty of time on their tummies on the floor. They should spend limited times confined to swings or seats that prevent them from moving.
The exception to this is baby wearing. A baby that is being worn still gets a fair amount of vestibular stimulation and movement because whoever is wearing them is moving. It can also be helpful as they get a little bigger and develop control of their head because they are able to move their head around while their body stays confined. This helps them naturally work through some of the reflexes that are triggered when they move their head.
I also always recommend body-work for infants. Things like chiropractic care and craniosacral therapy. Now, I don’t know that we have any actual research that supports those two things specifically helping with retained reflexes; but from what I know about reflexes and those therapies I strongly suspect that they are helpful. Chiropractic care helps the whole nervous system to function smoothly and work together. It also helps babies to be able to use their bodies effectively and move properly.
Craniosacral directly targets the nervous system and also helps the body work effectively. I worked with a midwife in Oklahoma who did craniosacral therapy on a lot of newborns. She told me once that she saw a lot of babies born by cesarean who go through the cardinal movements of birth while they are doing craniosacral therapy.
Cardinal movements very specific movements that babies make when they are born vaginally. These movements are controlled by the primitive reflexes and it helps to strengthen them and prep a baby’s nervous system to function outside the womb. Babies born by cesarean miss out on these movements and that is one of the theories of why cesareans are a risk factor for retained reflexes later in childhood. Theoretically, doing craniosacral therapy could help all infants, but particularly those born by cesarean to work through some of the physical things they need to mature properly.
Lastly an important protective factor is a positive stable relationship and family life for your child. This goes hand in hand with taking care of your own mental health. Small infants need a caregiver that meets their needs quickly and consistently. I mention this in my previous post about tough dads, but during the first few months after birth babies basically just have needs, not wants. They need a caregiver that is pretty hyper attuned to them. This helps provide security and attachment which are both important factors in working through the Moro or infant startle reflex.
Ideally, children will have a stable relationship with their parents and their parents will have a stable relationship with each other. If this is something that you’re struggling with as a parents then definitely get help from a coach or therapist to help provide a more stable home environment.
If this is a topic that interests you and you want to learn more I highly recommend the book What Babies and Children Really Need by Sally Goddard Blythe. She is one of the founders of the Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology where I got my post graduate degree and most of my education on primitive reflexes. That book takes a very in depth look at prevention across lots of different areas.
And lastly if you have a child that you’re concerned about then please check out my website. I have a screening questionnaire and offer free phone consults to see if there is something we can do to help your child. As always thank you so much for reading, I hope you learned something helpful!