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What is a retained primitive reflex?

16 February 2015

In the developing child and in early life, when the central nervous system is not fully developed, there are many decisions being made at a subconscious level, in the brainstem, the ‘hub’ of several reflexes called the ‘primitive reflexes’.  They help the infant to grow properly and help develop the foundations skills for children to build motor, sensory, emotional, communication, life and learning skills.

For example, the reflexes are first active during the birth process, they then help to establish breast feeding, gripping on to things and feeling safe and secure.  As the system matures the primitive reflexes are no longer needed, and they are expected to take a ‘back seat’ while the higher parts of the brain take control.  At the same time there is a ‘shift’ from the primitive reflexes, to the ‘postural reflexes’ that are primarily responsible for the development of movement, spatial awareness, and visual motor integration.  This is an important transition as it gives rise to the growth of skills required for the classroom, social interaction and the control of movement.


So why do some children find this process more difficult than others?  In some children their primitive reflexes remain active, due to birth trauma or developmental restrictions. This means that the postural reflexes are not able to develop fully, and the child’s nervous system will develop restrictions in the development of more complex skills, and is likely to automatically react inappropriately in certain situations.  Together, this will adversely affect the development of learning, movement, interaction and behaviour.

When a reflex does not settle or integrate effectively, causing disruption in the functioning and development of the nervous system, it is known as a retained primitive reflex

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