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Primary reflexes in preschool children

Primary reflexes have the potential to cause poor coordination of movements, deficits in fine motor skills, issues with pronunciation, and challenges with concentration. If you, or for instance, a kindergarten teacher, notice that a child requires assistance in order to be well-prepared for school, it is advisable to have their primary reflexes evaluated.

A newborn baby is inundated with an overwhelming amount of stimuli that their developing brain is not yet equipped to process effectively. Primary reflexes aid in responding appropriately to these stimuli, making them particularly prevalent during the initial six months of a child's life. The motor development of a child is closely tied to primary reflex activity.

As the baby interacts with their environment, primary reflexes are employed, stimulating the formation of neural connections in the brain, the differentiation of nerve cells, and the establishment of connections with higher brain centers. Consequently, the movements produced by primary reflexes contribute to the formation of a dense neural network that enables the connection of distinct brain areas. These connections play a crucial role in future learning processes, communication skills, emotional and social development, and motivation.

As the higher brain centers mature, primary reflexes gradually become inhibitory and must be suppressed. If primary reflexes persist, they can have counterproductive effects on optimal neurological development. Primary reflexes can impact sensory perception, balance, coordination, and learning ability. Impairment in one function can have a negative impact on others. Thus, some children may experience developmental delays or face difficulties in school due to persistent primary reflexes. In some instances, these problems can persist into adulthood, with individuals struggling to cope with everyday stressors.

In preschool-aged children, coordination, fine motor skills, and pronunciation may pose challenges, while concentration may be noticeably poorer, even if the child does not yet have to focus for periods of 45 minutes, as is required in school.

When working at a desk, children with a persistent Tonic Labyrinthine reflex do not keep their torso upright and tend to "lay" on the desk. They may also hold their heads with their hands or sit on their heels. This reflex can lead to hypotonus or less muscle tone, which can result in a bloated tummy, weak abdominal muscles, greater kyphosis of the thoracic spine, and lordosis of the lumbar spine. Alternatively, if the reflex persists more into extension, children may experience hypertonus or increased muscle tone, with firm muscles, tiptoe walking, and increased hypertonus when happy or angry, which can cause them to cup their toes and wave their arms.

Moro's reflex is a startle reflex of newborns. A newborn baby cannot yet correctly analyze whether a stimulus is dangerous or not. Therefore, the Moro reflex is triggered from the brainstem (as if we switched to "survival mode"). Persistence of the reflex can be the cause of balance and coordination disorders. It can cause poor coordination of movements, which can be particularly noticeable during ball games, where they may close their eyes when catching the ball.

When the reflex is activated, it stimulates the production of adrenaline and cortisol, also known as stress hormones, which can increase a child's reactivity and sensitivity. As a result, the child may be hypersensitive to some sensory stimuli and react to them inadequately, perceiving all stimuli equally strongly. This inability to filter important perceptions from unimportant ones is stressful, leading to two types of reactions:

  • fear, preferring to stay aloof, and difficulty adjusting to physical contact, similar to a child with ADD, (rather to perceive nothing than to perceive everything)

  • or hyperactivity, aggression, or irritability, similar to a child with ADHD (needs to release stress)

Chronic stress can also affect gland and digestive system function, leading to biochemical and nutritional imbalances. The child may experience fatigue, lack of endurance, mood swings, anxiety, shyness, lack of concentration, and hyperactivity.

Persistent Moro reflex can cause insufficient control of eye movements, restless and volatile eye movements, and hypersensitivity to light, sound, and temperature stimuli, which are perceived as threatening factors.They can also react strong to auditive information, therefore react strongly to e.g. a barking dog or the sound of a blender. The Moro reflex has an overall effect on the child's psyche.

Another primary reflex, the Asymmetric Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR), affects fine motor skills and the correct cooperation of the cerebral hemispheres, causing delayed lateralization. You can see this if the child cannot choose whether to write (draw) with the right or left hand. When drawing a picture on a large paper, he holds the pencil in his right hand when he draws on the right side of the paper, and then switches it to his left hand when he wants to draw something on the left side. Holding a pencil tends to be convulsive. This reflex also plays a role in speech production, which involves several centers in the brain that must send signals to each other quickly.

The palmar reflex is a tactile reflex that changes the feeling in the hands. Children who are very sensitive may not like playing with sand or finger paints, while those who are not very sensitive may seek different textures and materials.These children like to play with sand or even with food. Problems with feeling in the hands may also lead to problems with fine motor skills and pronunciation, becuase of a neural connection between the centers in the brain for both the hands and the mouth. Therefore, children who have problems with fine motor skills often have problems with pronunciation and vice versa.

Other tactile reflexes are the sucking and searching reflexes. A persistent sucking reflex causes problems with pronunciation. The tongue is placed too far forward in the mouth, making it difficult to control the tongue. Therefore, children have problems with speaking, swallowing, drooling, they have poorer coordination between speaking and breathing, and they cannot eat with their mouth closed.

Children with a persistent rooting reflex often need oral stimulation. They always need to chew or suck something, so for example they suck their thumbs, hair, pencils, collars, etc. for a long time. This can create a "gothic palate" - a very high and narrow upper palate. A persistent sucking and seeking reflex can also cause the child to dislike different food consistencies. Here too, if the problem is in the meringue, it will affect the hands as well - fine motor skills tend to be worse.

Overall, primary reflexes have a significant impact on a child's development. While kindergarteners may not need to sit still and concentrate for long periods, problems can quickly escalate in school. Children have less movement, so posture problems quickly arise. Children cannot sit still, need to rest their head on an arm, roll on the bench, swing or sit on their heels.

The demands on fine motor skills are great (he has to learn to write), which quickly leads to a convulsive grip on the pencil. The child's brain becomes overloaded, so they become either overactive or lose focus.

So if you suspect that your child still has primary reflexes, it is best to resolve this before starting school. If the problems are minor, Neuro-Developmental Stimulation "NDS Learning through Movement" will certainly be sufficient, which can be offered by a trained speech therapist, special pedagogue or teacher right in your kindergarten . If the child has more difficulties, individual therapy may be needed as part of Neuro-Developmental Therapy.

Author of the article: PhDr. Marja Volemanová, PhD.


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