The impact of retained reflexes

Retained reflexes and their impact on learning and school performance

by Janet de Witt

  • Ever wondered why he/she cannot sit still?
  • Ever wondered why they swim like an old-fashioned washing machine?
  • Ever wondered why they hate writing?
  • Ever wondered why they run like Mr Bean?
  • Ever wonder why they have HUGE tantrums (at home) when they are way past the Terrible Twos?

The answer to these questions may have multiple answers, but one factor to consider is the possibility of retained infant reflexes.

Motor Control

Motor control is the foundation for learning and independence, and to learn new skills we need to be able to move in an intentional way. In NZ, we expect that foundation movement skills are established before children start school at 5 yrs of age and indeed this is a focus in early childhood education. However, it is becoming more evident that many children do not have these skills in place at 5 years of age.

Academic learning

Academic learning depends on automatization of many core physical skills. In NZ, we often have unrealistic educational expectations for some children, as their nervous systems are just not wired up for some specific classroom tasks at age 5 or 6 yrs. Knowledge of the child’s birth and developmental history can help educators and parents have more realistic expectations of young children.

Retained Infant Reflexes

Retained Infant Reflexes can continue to interfere with conscious control and learning of gross and fine motor tasks for a variety of reasons. Birth trauma such as prematurity, (Caesar, Vontuse, Forceps, Cord around neck, prolonged or short labour etc.) can cause a “glitch” in the development of the nervous system. Interruptions to development of movement milestones such as not enough  time spent rolling, crawling, climbing, hanging or swinging, Unusual crawling variations such as bear walk, commando crawl or a one sided movement, may inhibit the wiring in the brain for cross over connections. This should be firmly in place by age 7 yrs. Survival orientated reflexes, which direct our physical development, should be integrated by 2 yrs of age.


A year 1 – 3 teacher, may observe immature handwriting, poor pencil grip, challenges with reading (immature eye tracking), inattention, poor focus, awkward running/swimming style and difficulty sitting still and maintaining focus for academic tasks and anxiety around risk taking or new situations, despite good intelligence.

At home, parents may observe, bed-wetting issues, over emotional behaviour, avoidance of certain physical activities such as climbing, balancing, clumsiness, difficulty sitting still at meal times or for homework, anxiety, high levels of sensory reactivity to sound, light, smells, taste and textures and poor risk taking behaviour. This may be puzzling as the child usually demonstrates good cognitive skills such as memory, curiosity, focussed interest, chattiness, in other areas.

Testing for Reflexes

Testing for Reflexes includes a variety of International standardized tests and may be carried out by a  Kinesiologist, Behavourial Optometrist, Paediatric Occupational Therapist, Chiropractor, and Developmental Therapist for example. The observations give a picture of the efficiency and maturity of neurological processing and it can relate to an internalised knowledge of the midlines of the body, (left /right), (back /front) and (top/ bottom).

The Moro Reflex

The Moro Reflex emerges after the Fear paralysis reflex about 9 weeks in utero and is a primary survival reflex. It is usually inhibited around 4 months and is transformed into an adult version of the startle reflex. Long-term effects of a retained Moro reflex can include sensory hypersensitivity, anxiety, and low level of risk taking behaviour, immature balance and visual perceptual issues and with adults may lead to anxiety and mood disorders.

Spinal Galant Reflex

This reflex develops in utero at 20 weeks and is integrated 3 – 9 months after birth. It helps to develop the vestibular system and helps the baby to move down the birth canal. Non – integrated Spinal Galant reflex can lead to clumsiness, wriggliness, bedwetting and a preference for loose clothing, especially at waistline (Low riding pants). Back problems may be present with adults.

Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)

This reflex begins in utero providing movements to develop neural connections. It is observed as extension of the arm and leg with the turning of the head on that side.  It keeps airways clear and helps to increase muscle tone and develop reaching movements (Goddard). It usually integrates around 6 months and if it is persistent, it can interfere with “balance, crossing the midline, crawling, eye tracking”… and “fine motor control”, Goddard (2005). Many children with dyslexia have been found to have a retained ATNR reflex.

NZ Therapy

In NZ, some therapists who work with children are aware of the international bodies of work around retained reflexes and the techniques for working with them. Some parents are researching reflex integration as drug free options. Some teachers have incorporated knowledge of reflexes into movement programmes such as Perceptual Motor Programmes, Brain Gym®, and Music and Movement programmes for Early Childhood.

Janet de Witt, Brain Body in Synch

Testimonial from a happy KidsLink parent for Janet de Witt, Educational and Developmental Kinesiologist

A Mum from the Hibiscus Coast read about Brain Gym and Educational Kinesiology on the KidsLink website. Her daughter Hester*, aged 9 yrs, was experiencing challenges with  classroom behaviour, handwriting and social skills. Hester’s first 2  years of life had been spent in an orphanage.

* name has been changed

“Janet has helped us understand that compromised early development impacted on our daughter’s development. We have worked through the exercises and affirmations with ease. The impact has been quite amazing! There have been big improvements in Hester’s handwriting, decision making and self-confidence. We would recommend Janet to any family. Our daughter found the sessions fun. Thanks Janet.”

Books to read

Goddard, S. Reflexes learning and Behaviour, (2005)

Dempsey, M. Rhythmic Movement Training and Reflex Integration, Level One, (2012)

Brown, Kathy. Educate Your Brain, (2012)

Koester, C. Movement Based Learning, (2007)

Some useful websites