Parents: What you need to know about Primitive Reflexes (Part 2)

“Treat the cause, not the symptom.” 

That will always be our approach at Kaleidoscope OT!

I have personally worked with a number of children who have a difficult time engaging with others, performing academically, or overcoming maladaptive behaviors.

A common starting point in my search for the root cause of the problem: primitive reflexes (which I talked about in my last post – link ). You’ll remember from that last post that more than half (65%) of healthy preschool-aged children have some level of retained primitive reflexes, which can affect them physically, emotionally, academically, or socially!

In the next couple of posts, we’ll be sharing what the specific primary primitive reflexes are, when they should be integrated, and the possible effects on children if they are retained!

Primitive reflexes can be broken into three categories: 1) The Moro Reflex (multisensory), 2) primitive reflexes of position, and 3) the primitive tactile reflexes. Today, we’ll focus on the first.



What is it and when does it disappear? We’ve all seen the Moro reflex. It occurs when an infant is startled and behaves as if she is falling – a sharp inhale and a shooting out of her arms. This is the first reflex to develop in utero and is known as the earliest form of “fight or flight” response. It exists for the survival of the infant, and is the only reflex that that can be triggered by all of the senses. An activated Moro reflex – along with the sympathetic nervous system – produces increased heart rate, breathing, and raised blood pressure, together with crying to get the attention from caregivers what the child needs for help.

Typically, this reflex begins to fade away within 2-4 months after birth, however, in extreme cases of danger, it may be triggered in later life and be considered normal.

What if the reflex is retained? Since the Moro reflex can be triggered by each sense, if it is retained there can be profound challenges later in childhood among all sensory systems. And because it is so foundational to development, the child who retains this reflex is constantly “on guard” and very easily overreacts to a situation or sensory input. Below is a list of other possible symptoms of a retained Moro reflex.

  • Vestibular hypersensitivity (knowing where your head is in space): motion sickness, poor coordination (i.e. hand/eye movements) and poor balance.
  • Touch hypersensitivity: a child may be startled by unexpected touch or easily feel that there is an invasion of body space.
  • Visual hypersensitivity: visual perceptual issues, poor reaction to light, eyes become tired under fluorescent lighting, photosensitivity, immature eye movements and slow reaction to fast-approaching objects (such as a ball being thrown for him to catch).
  • Auditory hypersensitivity: difficulty discriminating between sounds or shutting out background noise.
  • Physiological and emotional effects: Shy, fearful, poor at peer relationships, and coping with affection or aggressive, excitable, difficulty reading body language of others and be dominating. A child with a retained Moro does not enjoy change and has a very difficult time adapting to it (especially those changes where he perceives he has no control).
  • Biochemical effects of a Moro leads to an increased production stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, designed to increase sensitivity and reactivity. These hormones also assist the body’s defense against infection and allergy. However, if a child has a retained Moro, there may be a decrease in the efficacy of the immune responses. This means a child with a retained Moro reflex is more susceptible to suffer from allergies, pick up colds, and possibly have food or additive sensitivities. In addition, his glucose metabolism acts fast resulting in sudden onset of fatigue and mood swings.

If you see an item above present in your child, it does not necessarily mean they have a retained Moro reflex. If you read through the list, however, and see a few areas that trip an alarm and cause you to say: “Yes! That sounds like my child!” then it would be a great idea to get their Moro reflex (and possibly others) tested! Over the course of the next couple blogs we will cover position and primitive tactile reflexes! A lot more information to come that may be very relevant to you and your child! Keep tracking with us!

-Christiana Cooper, OTR/L


Goddard S. Reflexes, Learning, and Behavior: A Window Into the Child’s Mind. Fern Ridge Pres. 2005., ed 2.

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