HOLD ON BABY
All you need to know about the fascinating palmer reflex
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”