Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Understanding Retained Infant Reflexes

In my client sessions, it's always interesting to see which processes will be called on to resolve someone's issue. I have many resources to offer, from the basic 26 Brain Gym® movements, to specific protocols that address emotional balance, core muscle activation, sensory integration, the visual skills of eye teaming and tracking, whole-brain whole-body coordination, and much, much more.

On occasion, the technique a client's session calls for is one that supports resolution of an "infant reflex" that is still retained in their mind-body system. Since the topic of infant reflexes is new to so many people, I'd like to share information on what they are, how it is that a retained infant reflex (or many retained reflexes) can cause such havoc in regard to daily life activities, and what can be done to resolve them.

What follows is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in my newsletter.

Understanding Retained Infant Reflexes
and Their Effect on Learning and Behavior

Claire Hocking is a gifted educator and Brain Gym® instructor in Australia who has illuminated a vital link in the use of the Brain Gym balance process to support resolution of childhood reflexes that stand in the way of personal and academic performance. The following is a glimpse of the course she taught following the July 1999 International Brain Gym® Conference. 

What are Childhood Reflexes?

Many people who have cared for an infant are familiar with childhood reflexes, perhaps without knowing what they are: Put your finger in the infant's hand and her fingers and thumb grip tightly around it (Palmar Reflex). The infant's head turns, and the arm and leg on that side extend away from the body, and the other arm and leg bend (Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex). Startled, the infant instantly throws his hands wide, head back, eyes open, breathing in - often followed by a cry - and then slowly closes arms and legs again (Moro Reflex). 

Infants are biologically prompted to go through this series of reflexive movements. Some are for survival (Root-and-Suck Reflex - finding food), some are for upright posture and coordination (Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex - learning to differentiate the two sides of the body, as well as the beginning of eye-hand coordination; Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex - develops the capacity for muscle tone). 

Each reflex has a specific timeline for development. The infant is born with several reflexes operating; others emerge later. The whole process is sometimes referred to as the "infant reflex continuum." Doctors often gauge the development of the child by the orderly progression of these reflexes. 

Under optimal circumstances all reflexes emerge during the appropriate stage of the child's growth, develop as a firmly functioning reflex, and then integrate into the overall neural system. At this point that stimulus will no longer trigger uncontrolled, reflexive action. It is vital that this occurs.

If various reflexes fail to emerge, develop, and integrate, the infant may become locked into a developmental holding pattern that prevents natural maturation of neural systems, leading to mild to severe learning and performance challenges. 

"Stuck" Reflexes Lead to Learning Challenges

For children, challenges from retained reflexes show up clearly in the classroom, where it is hard for them to keep up with grade level expectations for academics and behavior. Children most able to cope may develop techniques for compensation, and succeed or just get by with great effort. Those least able to cope often end up in special-education classrooms or alternative schools. They may be at high risk for behavior and attitude problems, most often out of years of sheer frustration. 

Children and teens with reflex challenges grow into adults with reflex challenges. They may end up with limited career choices, or may simply have to work extremely hard for each success. In any case, the common denominator is struggle and effort against the invisible pull of these reflexes. 

What Disrupts the Reflex Continuum?

Many things can disrupt the normal progression of infant reflex development. At-risk pregnancy, fetal distress, birthing trauma or emergency procedures, and emotional or physical disruption in the mother's life (illness, car accident, death in the family) are but a few of the suspected causes. 

Practices that put the child consistently in certain positions or limit movement may actually prevent the child from having the freedom to develop and integrate their reflexes. (Overuse of car-seats and little time on the tummy are a concern here.) Infants should have abundant opportunities for free movement of arms, legs, and head, on a flat surface, on both back and tummy. They should have time and space to freely crawl, walk, and run, engaged in whole-body exploration of their world.

In addition, 
even if one's infant reflexes are thoroughly integrated in childhood, following a traumatic experience such as a car accident, an infant reflex (or more than one) may spring back to life, no matter what age we are.

Examples of the Effects of Retained Reflexes:

Each retained reflex controls aspects of posture, movement, perception, and behavior, all of which affect our ability to function in the world. Here are a few examples:

• "Karen" has the first reflex of all, the Fear Paralysis Reflex, still strongly "on." Her body is constantly under "red alert": hypersensitive to touch and sound, constantly complaining that people hit her, when the truth is they only brush by her as they pass in the crowded hallway or make other casual contact. She is very uncomfortable in tight clothing or in sleeping bags. People with FPR still "on" may suffer from "selective mutism," being extremely non-verbal away from home, for example; their mind-body system is so overwhelmed by stress that the vocal cords actually become temporarily paralyzed. (Fear Paralysis Reflex is supposed to be fully integrated by the time an infant is born, so many sources do not even list it.)

• "Charlie" still has the Spinal Galant reflex strongly "on." A light stroke on one side of his lower back causes muscles on that side to instantly and involuntarily contract, raising the hip. He instinctively takes odd seated postures so his low back doesn't make contact with the chair or car seat. If made to "sit back in your seat!" he can't help but wriggle. Stimulating both sides of the back at the same time can cause someone with strongly held Spinal Galant to wet himself. Tickling may have this effect; so may tight contact with bedding, causing bed-wetting. Adults diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome have a high incidence of Spinal Galant still "on." (The Spinal Galant movement is thought to facilitate the baby in wriggling through the birth canal; this reflex is never used if the baby is born through Caesarian section, or little used in case of very rapid delivery, which could be why it's present in so many children.) 

• "Frances" has elements of the Rooting and Suck Reflexes still "on." She has a hard time articulating words, and chews and bites objects, like her pencil or shirt collar, while concentrating. She has labored, noisy chewing and is over-sensitive to touch on her cheek or mouth. People with Root-and-Suck still "on" may be fearful regarding separation from known security. When instructions are being given both verbally and visually, this person will need to shut down one mode or the other to understand the instructions, giving ruse to others saying, "Look at me when I talk to you!" which often results in no information being received at all.  

• "Mara" still has the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR) strongly "on." She has a tendency to slump when sitting, with legs extended. If made to sit up, with legs bent, she'll automatically extend her arms and read or write out at a distance from her body. She may prefer to eat standing at the dining table, and do homework standing at the kitchen counter. (Both offer the opportunity to have straight legs and bent arms, taking the pressure off this reflexive action.) She'll frequently twist her legs around the legs of her chair. Cross-legged sitting is uncomfortable; she prefers "W" sitting, with both legs folded back on either side of her body. She has great difficulty with any activity that involved rapid adjustment of near to far vision, such as copying onto paper from the board in the front of the room. (STNR is the reflex that eventually brings the infant up off his tummy into an all-fours position for crawling. Babies who do not spend time on their tummy may not resolve this reflex.)

• "Sheldon" still has the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR) strongly "on." When his head comes forward his knees bend, and when his head moves backward his legs tend to straighten. This results in a multitude of odds physical sitting postures, propping up of his head when seated, and cries from the teacher or parent to "Sit UP!!" Of course, when he does, the effort required to overcome this reflex saps his energy, leaving little for listening and learning. People with TLR may dog-paddle happily in the pool with their head up, but when asked to put their head down to actually swim, the knees automatically come toward the chest and they founder.

Infant in position prompted by ATNR
• Claire Hocking, the course creator and instructor, described her own ATNR (Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex) situation. During the ATNR stage, when the infant's head is turned to the left, his left arm and leg will extend and the right will bend. When he turns his head to the right, the right arm and leg extend and the left will bend. (This gives the infant's mind-body system the experience that it has two separate sides that can work independently of each other.) Claire shared that for many years she always had to look straight down the road when driving - not even a slight head turn left or right - or she'd find herself veering off to the side of the road. (The ATNR response kept directing her arms to straighten or bend involuntarily - and her hands were on the steering wheel!) Following a balance to resolve this reflex, she could turn her head in any direction and still drive straight down the road. Retained ATNR can cause considerable problems with academics: it affects the ability of the eyes or hand to move back and forth across the midline of the body, vital for writing, and eyes moving across a line of print.

Compensation Takes Great Effort
Throughout our lives we strive to compensate for any of these reflexes that may still be "on," and this takes a tremendous amount of energy. Under stress we may simply run out of energy for these compensations and we are at a loss to cope.

As one enters the elder years of life, the energy to continue these developed compensations becomes less and less available and the reflexive responses begin to reappear, in reverse order; in this way, abilities fade and frustration emerges because of the tremendous effort required to do familiar tasks.

The good news is that there are simple ways of determining where any child or adult is in relation to any or all of these reflexes, and, through a specially adapted Brain Gym "balance" process, supporting them in completely resolving, one at a time. (In otherwise typically-abled individuals, results are often immediate and quite dramatic. Results for individuals who have more complex developmental issues may be slower.)

Resolution Through the Brain Gym Balance Process
When targeting a certain coordination, cognitive processing, or emotional goal during the Brain Gym balance process, resolving a specific reflex may come up as the key to this desired change. 

Following a balance to become more comfortable while writing, which included resolution of the Palmar (hand) Reflex, one of my recent clients, age 32, found himself immediately able, for the first time ever, to hold a pencil in the classic "pincer" grip and write without his hand aching after just a few words.

One of our post-Conference course members volunteered as the subject for a demonstration balance for resolution of the Spinal Galant Reflex. She recognized herself immediately in Claire's description of the typical Spinal Galant response, because she had never been able to stand having her lower back massaged: she would always jump uncontrollably. Comfort in this area became her goal, and Claire took her through the protocols for Spinal Galant. A pre-check showed extreme discomfort and classic side contraction when the Spinal Galant spots were stimulated. Following the balance (perhaps fifteen minutes of specific movements) the post-check showed she was completely comfortable with this same stimulation. She is an avid golfer, and quick swing of a handy golf club showed that her chronic sense of "not connecting with her backswing" had disappeared. 

It's interesting to note that this particular course participant is an extremely experienced Edu-K instructor who had been doing Brain Gym for many years. Yet this reflex had not resolved - perhaps because it had never been directly addressed through what I call "the power of focused intention," which is the key to a Brain Gym balance. 

Throughout the course Claire regaled us with self-disclosures of all the counterproductive things she'd said to children during her years as a classroom teacher, before her new awarenesses of childhood reflexes: Sit up straight! Sit back in your chair! Look at me when I talk to you! She'd shake her head ruefully and say, "If I'd only known..."

Certainly, I could see the ghosts of my many years as a classroom teacher, and all the things I would have done differently if I'd known Brain Gym and this reflex material at the time.

With knowledge comes understanding, and with that, new action. My goal is to use this new material consistently and inspire others to take Claire's course, as well. With enough demand we'll entice Claire to "come over" as the Aussies say, and teach this again soon. 

Recommended Reading:
• To learn more about how reflex continuum delays may manifest in children and adults I highly recommend Reflexes, Learning, and Behavior - A Window into the Child's Mind by Sally Goddard.
• Chapter 8, "Wired for Ability," in my book Educate Your Brain is all about retained infant reflexes, and more fully explains Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR). Click here. 
• The April 2014 posting on this blog explains Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) and why it may be at the root of so many bike accidents, especially for young children. Click here
• On my main website I've posted this updated article (replacing the original from my newsletter), plus four more articles about individual reflexes: Moro Reflex, Fear Paralysis Reflex, Spinal Galant, and STNR. Click here

My very best to you all,
©Copyright 2015 Kathy Brown. All rights reserved.
Original article ©Copyright 1999 Kathy Brown. All rights reserved.
Photographs ©Copyright Laird Brown Photography. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a registered trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation • Ventura, CA  •  www.braingym.org
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