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Palmar Grasp Reflex and SPD

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For my last blog we explored the Spinal Galant Reflex and its connection to sensory processing disorder (SPD). If you missed it you can check it out here. The Palmar Grasp Reflex is one of the more commonly retained primitive reflexes, so we will talk about what it is, how it is impacted by SPD and vice versa, and what you can do to help. Plus, as here at Sensory Sid we are all about sensory processing, I will add a bonus of a couple of my favorite specific sensory strategies for a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex.

Okay, what is the Palmar Grasp Reflex? Learn this, what to do when it is retained and why it matters for those with SPD (sensory processing disorder). Let’s get familiar with primitive reflexes first.

First, a quick recap of primitive reflexes: automatic movement patterns prompted by a specific stimulus. These movement patterns are useful during birth and in infancy. As babies grow and develop, these reflexes are “replaced” by tracks of higher level brain and body nervous system communication that result in more refined movement and body use. This is called integration. We call a reflex “retained” if it continues to show up past its expected timeframe. Check out this recent blog if you want to learn even more about primitive reflexes.

These short periods of primitive reflexes in use are important in a baby’s development and in sensory processing. When reflexes are retained, the nervous system is losing out on opportunities for sensory processing development and other higher level skill development.

What is the Palmar Grasp Reflex?

The Palmar Grasp Reflex is a familiar and endearing sight to many new parents. Nothing tugs on the heart strings so hard as seeing your baby grasp your finger. While this may seem like a mere emotional moment, the reality is that it is a useful reflex pattern.

Babies a couple months old are unable to organize the motions needed to grasp an object of interest. This reflex lays the preliminary groundwork for establishing the voluntary grasp.

This reflex begins very early in utero (16 weeks). It should be active as a newborn and then fade away or become integrated at around 6 months of age.

This reflex is prompted by touch to the palm. This prompts the hand to close and the fingers to grasp.

As the baby develops motor skills for reach and grasp this reflex often integrates or ‘disappears’. If this reflex is still present past 6 months it is considered retained.

What happens if the Palmar Grasp Reflex is retained?

A child with a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex may demonstrate the following:

  • Poor fine motor control and coordination
  • Sensitive or “ticklish” palm
  • Tires quickly with handwriting or fine motor tasks
  • Poor handwriting or self feeding skills
  • Difficulty with zippers, buttons and other fine motor tasks
  • Additional mouth movements while performing fine motor tasks
  • Challenges with speech articulation

How does this look in daily life? As an infant this can be difficult to spot. They may fuss with unusual touches or textures to their hands or seem reluctant to pick up and play with items. They also may keep hands fisted or struggle to release items once grasped.

As the child gets older, a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex may be more obvious. This child may prefer the elastic band pants to avoid the buttons and zippers of jeans. They struggle to tie shoes and as they may not pull the laces tight, they keep coming loose. Chip bags and yogurt containers may be a difficult feat for them open without assistance. They don’t like handwriting and can be seen shaking their hand out after a few words. As the hand and mouth have a close neuronal connection, the child with a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex may also have a difficult time with articulation.

Palmar Grasp Reflex and sensory processing disorder (SPD)

So how does a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex relate to sensory processing disorder (SPD)? Or do they even relate at all? First, a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex (or any other primitive reflex) does not mean that someone has SPD or the other way around. The connection is much looser than that. It goes back to what happens in the developing brain. 

Primitive reflexes are active while the baby is amassing a great amount of information about their world. Taking in sensory information is how that happens. They take in information from the world around them, react and respond to it and even take in sensory information from their own body from that reaction. It is a great loop of sensory and motor movements.

If sensory processing is a problem, the primitive reflex may remain active and will limit the motor skill development as well as additional sensory processing skills. Addressing the reflex will allow not only for higher motor functions but also improved sensory processing.

The Palmar Grasp Reflex has clear impacts on several sensory systems: the tactile, proprioceptive, and visual systems. Addressing this reflex and the sensory systems individually and together may help.

So what can you do to help someone with a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex?

Integrating the Palmar Grasp Reflex

When a reflex is retained past its useful time period there are some things that can be done to help. First off, I always recommend that you speak with your pediatrician and ask for an occupational or physical therapy referral to someone who specializes in primitive reflexes. They will be able to assess for retained reflexes and provide a plan to help these get integrated. 

A professional in primitive reflexes is useful because when one reflex is retained, often others remain as well. Helping these reflexes integrate helps the brain and body function more optimally.

The activities that you do to help integrate the Palmar Grasp Reflex often imitate parts of the reflex itself, but should not stimulate the actual reflex. Start by providing lots of sensory and play options. Provide a variety of toys and textures to touch and explore. As their motor skills develop, look for toys that involve both hands like beading, cutting, and lego building.

Doing activities like these every day to integrate the Palmar Grasp Reflex can usually help integrate it in 4-6 weeks. Totally worth 5 minutes a day! You will likely be making really great changes for the Palmar Grasp Reflex and their sensory processing at the same time.

Bonus: Sensory tips for a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex

If your kiddo has a retained Palmar Grasp Reflex and SPD, these tips are for you! Sensory play is key. The more sensory opportunities they explore with their hands the more their sensory processing and motor skills will develop. This is the perfect time to create your own sensory bins! Fill a bin or cake pan with your favorite dried goods, throw in a spoon for scooping and tweezers and tongs for pinching and put in toys to “rescue”. If textures are hard for your child, meet them where they are at and only gradual add more challenging textures to their repertoire. Using “tools” to interact with disliked textures can help your child become more comfortable and encourage engagement.

Is your child having a hard time with handwriting? Wrap a rubber and around the part of the pencil that they should be pinching and it gives them tactile input, a place marker for where to grasp, and a wider and easier grasp.

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