Learn All About Newborn Reflexes

Last Updated: June 19, 2023
Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

By Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

This article may contain affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase through these links, we may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. Learn more about affiliate links.

Did you know that when your sweet baby is born they come into this world with 6 distinct newborn reflexes?

Yep, it’s true. And if you’ve got a newborn at home, you’ve probably already witnessed them without even knowing it.

Have you ever tickled the sole of your newborn’s foot and watched their toes curl? Or maybe you brushed their cheek with your finger, intentional or unintentional, and they instantly opened up their mouth. 

Sure, these little actions are pretty adorable to watch, especially as a mama, but did you know that there’s actually a purpose for them? 

Today we’re going to dive in head first and learn all about newborn reflexes!

Follow @mommy.labornurse on Instagram to join our community of over 640k for education, tips, and solidarity on all things pregnancy, birth, and postpartum!

What are reflexes?

Newborn reflexes are involuntary movements that your baby is born with. These involuntary movements occur as responses to different stimuli and ultimately exist to help them survive the first few days, weeks, and months of life. 

You should notice your pediatrician checking to make sure each reflex is present, if age appropriate, at your baby’s check-ups. It’s important for the reflexes to be assessed by your pediatrician to ensure baby is properly developing. 

6 Newborn reflexes

There are actually 6 newborn reflexes that should be present at birth. As I mentioned previously, each reflex acts in different ways to protect baby from certain stimuli and help them survive in this crazy world. Evolution is pretty cool, huh?

1. Rooting reflex

The rooting reflex occurs when baby turns their head and opens their mouth in response to something touching or brushing against their cheek. This particular reflex exists to help baby locate mama’s nipple in preparation to breastfeed. 

Present at birth, the rooting reflex typically is present for the first four months of baby’s life. 

Typically, the rooting reflex doesn’t develop in utero until 28-30 weeks. This means that a baby born prior to this gestational age may not have developed their rooting reflex yet. 

In this particular case, or even with full-term babies that don’t have a strong suck, mamas might need to hand express milk onto their nipple to guide them to the breast. 

2. Sucking reflex

The sucking reflex is such an important one for babies. I mean, all the reflexes are important, but this one is especially important because it helps them know how to eat. Isn’t it amazing that babies are born instinctively knowing how to suck so they can eat and ultimately survive? The whole process is just mind-blowing to me!

This reflex isn’t fully developed until baby is around 36 weeks gestation. This is why a good number of babies born prior to this mark have difficulties with latching, feeding, and weight gain. An underdeveloped suck reflex makes it difficult for them to ingest breastmilk or formula orally, so many of them require some kind of intravenous nutrition and/or tube feeds until their suck reflex matures. 

With a fully developed and mature suck reflex, baby should start to suck when the roof of their mouth is touched. You should notice this with the nipple of a breast, the nipple of a bottle, a pacifier, and/or a finger. Even with a mature suck reflex, it can take baby a little bit to get the hang of things after they are born. Breastfeeding is a learning curve for both of you, so make sure you give yourself grace and patience. 

The sucking reflex, which is present at birth (at least of a 36+ week baby), doesn’t ever really go away. Instead of disappearing, the suck reflex actually turns into more of a voluntary behavior around 2-4 months of age. 

3. Moro reflex

Also known as the startle reflex, the Moro reflex occurs when baby suddenly throws their arms out and then pulls them back in, as if startled. This reflex is a protective response to sudden movements or loud noises. 

The Moro reflex typically peaks during baby’s first month of life and starts to disappear around the two month mark. The Moro reflex should be present and equal on both sides of your baby’s body. 

Your pediatrician will be checking the reflexes at each visit, but if you notice that the Moro reflex is only present on one side of the body or unequal, be sure to notify your pediatrician. 

One thing noteworthy about this reflex is that it can impede sleep for some babies. Just think about it – you are fast asleep and all of a sudden, bam, your arms unexpectedly go flying up in the air. That’s enough to wake anyone up, right!? 

Enter, a baby swaddle! A swaddle can do wonders to help calm this reflex and keep baby from waking themself up. 

4. Tonic neck reflex (aka fencing reflex)

The tonic neck reflex, also known as the fencing reflex, occurs when baby extends their arm and leg on one side while flexing the opposite arm and leg, resembling a fencer’s stance. This reflex helps babies develop their hand-eye coordination and overall body awareness.

This particular reflex is pretty subtle and might not be exhibited if baby is crying or upset. Present at birth, the tonic neck reflex typically goes away somewhere between five and seven months of age.

Similar to the Moro reflex, the tonic neck reflex should also be present and equal on both sides of baby’s body. Again, remember this one is a bit more subtle and therefore might be harder to pick up on. If there are any potential concerns with this one, or any of the newborn reflexes for that matter, certainly don’t hesitate to bring it up with your pediatrician.  

New call-to-action

5. Grasp reflex

Want to try a fun little experiment with your newborn? Stroke your baby’s palm with one of your fingers and see what they do. Your baby should immediately start to close his or her fingers like they are attempting to grasp your finger. 

The same holds true if you stroke the bottom of their foot. Well, they won’t try and grasp your finger with their foot, but they should curl their toes in response!

This reflex, which helps babies develop their hand-eye coordination and motor skills, is present from birth and disappears anywhere from five months to twelve months. 

Typically the palmar grasp reflex (palm) disappears sooner than the plantar grasp reflex (foot). You can expect the palmar reflex to disappear between five to six months and the plantar reflex to disappear between nine to twelve months. 

6. Stepping reflex

This is when baby will move their legs in a stepping motion when held upright with their feet touching a flat surface. This reflex helps babies develop the ability to walk and stand as they grow.

Have you ever heard of the breast crawl? Well, if not, it’s pretty dang amazing! Some babies, when placed on mama’s chest after birth, will actually crawl towards the breast in an attempt to initiate breastfeeding. This “crawling” is possible thanks to the stepping reflex!

This reflex, which is present at birth, will disappear around 2 months. It actually reappears towards the end of baby’s first year of life as they begin to learn how to walk. 

Wrapping up

Overall, newborn reflexes are important for a baby’s survival and development. While most of these reflexes disappear as baby grows older, they help lay the foundation for their physical and cognitive development in the early stages of life!

Related Readings and Listens:

New call-to-action
Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

As a labor and delivery nurse, I’ve spent countless hours with women who felt anxious — even fearful — about giving birth. I want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way for you!

Are you ready to have an even better birth?

Everything in your hospital’s childbirth class – plus so. much. more. Get the knowledge and tools necessary for a positive birth experience – no matter how you deliver!

Natural Birth Class

Eliminate the what-ifs and feel strong and ready for your unmedicated birth.

Start here if birthing without an epidural is your goal!

Epidural Birth Class

Let go of fear and feel fully prepared for (and unafraid of!) your epidural birth.

Start here if you know you want that epidural – or you’re not sure what your birth goals are!

C-Section Birth Class

Release anxiety and gain a sense of control for your C-section birth.

Start here if you have a planned C-section on the horizon. You deserve birth education too!