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  • emilymroper

The Startle Reflex and Big Emotions

This post is a condensed summary of our podcast about the Moro reflex. To listen to the full episode scroll to the bottom of the page or find us on all of the major streaming services.
















Hello, and welcome! In this post we are going to dive deep into the Moro reflex. It is the infant fight-or-flight response and the most common and problematic reflex that I see in kids. This reflex should disappear in infancy and it is replaced with a more mature adult startle reaction. When this process doesn't happen and children keep their Moro reflex it causes big problems with the way the rest of the brain and body develop.


So lets start with normal development. Our fight-or-flight (or freeze) system goes through several transformation during our early life. These transformations correlate with three reflex stages: intrauterine, primitive and postural.


Our intrauterine reflexes are present for a short time in early pregnancy and are quickly replaced with our primitive reflexes long before birth. We keep our primitive reflexes for the first year or so after birth and they are replaced with postural or adult reflexes.


Our fight-or-flight system goes through transformations at each of these stages and you can see what stage it is in by looking at what startle reflex is present. Our intrauterine reflex is called the Fear Paralysis Reflex, our primitive startle reflex is called the Moro and our postural startle reflex is called an Adult Startle Reflex. Each of these stages produce and more sophisticated, mature response to stress and the environment.


There are things that can happen during pregnancy, birth and early infancy that interrupt this process and prevent these reflexes from developing and inhibiting properly. When this happens, children get "stuck" with an immature stress response.


It is theoretically possible for this to happen at the intrauterine or Fear Paralysis level. In the full podcast episode I explain more about what we actually know vs suspect about this response, but for now we will assume that this happens frequently. Children in this stage tend to have a "freeze" response to stress. They tend to have very heightened anxiety and a host of other symptoms.


It is more common to see this process get interrupted at the Moro level. When you have a child with a retained Moro, their brain and body don’t have the right tools to function in a normal environment. They live in a world that is too loud, too bright, and too busy for them and their body over reacts to every day experiences. As you can imagine this takes a toll on how their brain and body develop.



One of the biggest ways you see this is in the development of emotional regulation and maturity. This reflex leads to a lot of problems with things like frustration tolerance, anxiety, anger, flexibility, empathy, and emotional maturity.


You often see kids cope in two different ways. This first is an "flight" response. These kids are anxious shy away from the world, they have a lot of irrational fears, they avoid social situations, and often as they get older they develop obsessive compulsive tendencies.


Other kids react with more of an “fight” response. These kids are angry and defiant. They are often hyper and excitable and are controlling in social situations. Most kids display elements of both of these two reactions depending on the situation.


All of these kids have big emotional reactions to small situations. They take longer than average to calm down and struggle to develop self-regulation skills.


Another big area that can be impacted is our sensory systems. Our brain is constantly receiving information from our eyes, ears, and all of the nerves in our body. It uses that information to make sense of the world. In normal development our brain learns what is important and what isn’t. It filters out irrelevant information and bring important information to our attention.


Children with a retained Moro often struggle to do this well. Most of the time these kids are hyper-sensitive to sensory input. They startle with loud noises, they don't like bright lights, they are picky about food and clothing and they get very overstimulated in busy places.


Other kids are more hypo-sensitive. These kids have the tv turned up to a ridiculous volume and don’t notice. They may be oblivious to things going on around them. They may even be emotionally flat and unruffled by things that should warrant a reaction. Most kids have some combination of both types of symptoms.


This leads to problems with things like focus and attention, hyperactivity, motivation, and energy regulation.


Another area that is affected is social engagement. Up to 90% of our social interactions are non-verbal. Children with a Moro often struggle to understand other people’s non verbal cues. Children with anxiety and depression tend to read facial expressions as more negative than they are. They may even be hypersensitive to the feelings of people around them and struggle to separate other people’s feelings from their own. Also, children with explosive reactions are often less liked by their peers and adults around them and this can really add to a self-conscious anxious spiral.


It is very common to see problems eye contact, parental attachment, making friends and social interest.


There are also other physical consequences to consider. Children with a retained Moro experience excessive amount of stress hormones. This negatively impacts things like sleep, digestion and the immune system. It is very common for kids with a retained Moro to have other physical symptoms as well like asthma, allergies, eczema, constipation, food sensitives, difficulty recovering from colds and flus and poor sleep.


Now the good news is that even if a child still has their Moro, they aren’t stuck. It is very treatable. We use physical movements that target the nervous system and help mature their stress response. Integrating the Moro reflex is life-changing for kids, but it isn't quick. You can see huge improvements in meltdowns, anxiety, anger, eye contact, social engagement, focus and all of the things I mentioned above it just takes time.


If you have a child that you’re concerned about then please go to my website earlyrootstherapy.com. I have a screening questionnaire that you can fill out and I offer free phone consults to see if this program is a good fit for your child. I am based out of Colorado but I work with families in person and remotely.




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