All you need to know about the fas­ci­nat­ing palmer re­flex

Mother & Baby - - CONTENTS -

Your new­born’s in­stinct to hold on tight to you is known as the pal­mar re­flex, and it’s fas­ci­nat­ing! In­cred­i­bly, you may be able to see your baby show­ing off the very be­gin­nings of it at your first scan. “The pal­mar grasp starts to de­velop from week 11 of preg­nancy and, af­ter this time, you do see ba­bies hold­ing on to the um­bil­i­cal cord in scans,” ex­plains psy­chol­o­gist Sally God­dard Blythe. “At this stage, there’s just a clos­ing of the fin­gers that may not even be in re­sponse to com­ing into con­tact with some­thing. By 16 weeks she starts to use her thumb, too. And,

by the time your baby is born, she will close her tiny fist around any­thing that touches the palm of her hand.” And this re­flex is amaz­ingly strong: “Re­search shows that a baby can hold her own body­weight by this re­flex,’ says Sally, ‘al­though ob­vi­ously don’t test it out for your­self!”


“The pal­mar re­flex is part of a group of early prim­i­tive re­flexes,” ex­plains Sally. It gets stronger af­ter birth, and is at its strong­est when your baby is around eight weeks old. “One the­ory is that it’s an evo­lu­tion­ary leftover from baby mon­keys hold­ing onto their mother’s fur,” says Sally. “It’s thought it’s a throw­back to when we needed to cling on to our mummy as she swung through the trees.” And right now, your baby is su­per-de­pen­dent on you. She needs to stay close to you, and this is one way to make sure that hap­pens. The re­flex isn’t around for long, though, be­cause as your tot be­comes more in­de­pen­dent, she doesn’t need it any more. “It starts to re­cede from six months, and is gen­er­ally lost by one year,” says Sally. “Th­ese early re­flexes are grad­u­ally in­hib­ited, or put to sleep, in the brain stem, but they don’t dis­ap­pear. If we have a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent or in­jury as adults, they reap­pear.”


If your baby seems to be grasp­ing your fin­ger ex­tra hard, she may be try­ing to tell you some­thing. “The pal­mar grasp is stronger be­fore feed­ing than af­ter”, says Sally, ‘and an­other re­flex cou­ples it with a suck­ing move­ment up to four months old. In the past, mid­wives would use this re­flex to help a baby who was hav­ing dif­fi­culty latch­ing on. They would mas­sage the palms of the baby’s hands, which would stim­u­late a suck­ing move­ment on the breast or the bot­tle. If your baby strug­gles to latch on, and there’s no ob­vi­ous rea­son such as tongue tie, it’s worth try­ing for your­self. And some­times, if your baby is just sleepy or not in­ter­ested in feed­ing, gen­tly rub­bing the palms of her hands may stim­u­late her to open her mouth and start suck­ing again.”


Your baby has many re­flexes when she’s born, and some are linked to one an­other. You’re prob­a­bly well aware of her star­tle, or Moro, re­flex, when she sud­denly flings out her arms and legs, cries, then pulls her limbs back in again, in re­sponse to some­thing that star­tles her. If the pal­mar re­flex is al­ready stim­u­lated in one of your baby’s hands – so she’s grasp­ing some­thing – the Moro re­flex will only be ac­tive on the op­po­site side of her body. So, if she hears a loud noise when her left hand is clenched, only the arm and leg on the right side of her body will go out in a star­tle re­ac­tion.


But while in those early days and weeks, your baby will grab any­thing that touches her palm, as she gets older that be­gins to change “When your lit­tle one gains head con­trol and she’s on her tummy, watch when she props her­self up on her fore­arms: her hands will still be curled the first few times she gets in that po­si­tion,” says Sally. But as she re­alises she needs her hands to help sup­port her weight, she’ll be­come less likely to grasp, even when she has a sen­sa­tion of some­thing on her palms. And as your tot re­alises she can con­trol her grasp, the games be­gin! “When your baby is a few months older and sit­ting up in a high­chair, you’ll no­tice she’ll start prac­tis­ing drop­ping things off her tray and onto the floor,” ex­plains Sally. “This shows a change from a re­flex re­sponse to more of a spon­ta­neous move­ment. Ba­bies love this game be­cause they’re learn­ing how to let go for the first time. And if you love it rather less af­ter ten min­utes of pick­ing things back up, then re­mem­ber that this is a pre­cur­sor for the thumb and fore­fin­ger pin­cer grip, which she’ll need for all sorts of im­por­tant tasks, such as writ­ing”

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