Okay, what is the Moro reflex? Learn this, what to do for a retained Moro reflex and why it matters for those with SPD (sensory processing disorder). We will connect some dots in this blog today, but let’s get familiar with the Moro reflex first.
The Moro reflex is one of the earliest primitive reflexes. Don’t know what primitive reflexes are? Check out this recent blog to learn more. A quick recap of primitive reflexes is that they are automatic movement patterns that are prompted by a specific stimulus. They 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.
These short periods of primitive reflexes in use are important in a baby’s development and in sensory processing. The Moro reflex is no exception and possibly exemplifies why primitive reflexes matter for sensory processing disorder best.
What is the Moro reflex?
The Moro reflex pattern has been spotted as early as 28 weeks gestation. It serves its purpose during birth and helps the baby take its first breath. Also, it has a protective use. It may reduce harm during a fall and covers the internal organs. This eye-catching reflex also draws maternal attention and response.
Many things can cause this reflex. A loud noise, bright lights, the sensation of falling or sudden movements can all stimulate this reflex. Surprise, startle and fear are often associated with the Moro reflex.
How can you recognize the Moro reflex? Typically the eyes widen and look up while the head tilts back. The arms and even legs can splay out and then come in to cover the core and internal organs. This activates the “fight or flight” and alarm system1.
Usually this reflex becomes “integrated” at 5 to 6 months of age. This means that by then the baby has developed higher level tracks in the nervous system that result in a more mature response.
Why does this matter for SPD?
Now that you know what the Moro reflex is we can talk about why it matters, especially for people with sensory processing disorder.
While the Moro reflex is important for infant survival, it is also doing another job. This reflex is an early, pre-formed response to sensory input. During the process of integrating this reflex the infant is laying down important information about sensory processing in the nervous system. In fact, the Moro reflex is connected to all of the sensory systems. That is why sounds, smells, tastes, lights, movement through space, and even internal feelings can set off this reflex. Consequently the Moro reflex is deeply entwined with sensory processing.
What happens if the Moro reflex doesn’t integrate or is retained? The fight or flight or alarm system is set off, over and over again because of sensory input that is interpreted as a risk. That has a snowballing effect of increasing sensitivity to sensory information.
This leaves kids hypersensitive to sensory input that they need to interact with every day. The feeling of grass on bare feet may send them over the edge. Opening the curtains to bright sunshine may make the heart race. The wobbly feeling of uneven ground has them reaching out to hang on to something, anything! The unexpected sound of the vacuum may cause them to scream in fright. This is not a comfortable way for a young one to learn about their world. You can see how a retained Moro reflex can lead to SPD.
What else can this lead to? A retained Moro reflex may increase issues with digestion, anxiety, emotional outbursts and attention. Frequent activation of fight or flight exhausts the adrenals and can cause food sensitivities, allergies, asthma and other health issues.
The Moro reflex and learning
Another result of a retained Moro reflex is that it makes learning very difficult. When I took a class on primitive reflexes from the amazing Karen Pryor recently, one thing really stood out to me about the Moro reflex. “You can’t learn to read while running from a lion.”
“You can’t learn to read while running from a lion!”Karen Pryor, PhD, DPT, PT
An activated Moro reflex makes you feel like you are running from a lion. That fight or flight response is needed when attacked by a lion, but not when the teacher flips on the bright lights in your home room. However, these wildly varying sensory events can have the same effects on the body. Undoubtably that lion-nipping-at-your-heels feeling is not conducive to learning.
Additionally, we know that when a primitive reflex is activated, the body is in an instinctual state and it makes it very difficult to store and recall information. Someone with a retained Moro reflex and frequently in fight or flight mode is at risk for learning disabilities2.
Calm the caveman
When someone demonstrates a Moro reflex or is even ramping up their anxiousness towards fight or flight there are several things you can do to help. Start by identifying it.
There is an area of the brain that is in charge of fight or flight and other base instincts and survival modes. This is sometimes called the lizard or caveman brain. It is buried deep inside the brain. Sometimes it really helps to talk about why we get these panicky feelings and identify them and where they come from.
In my house, we talk about calming the lizard brain. You should use whichever one resonates with you. We talk about how the lizard is only worried about surviving and gets a little worked up and doesn’t let the thinking brain do its thing. We pretend to take the lizard out, pet it and talk nicely to it to calm down. Sometimes we rub the back of the head and neck. Know your kiddo here, though, because if yours find touch stimulating and not calming this will have the opposite effect! Walk them through imagining the lizard getting calm and cozy in his home and then say “now that the lizard brain is calmed down, let’s use your thinking brain.”
Other strategies for calming down and preparing to learn can be taking small breaks like getting a short walk and a drink of water, getting a snack, moving the body a little, and taking some deep breaths. If you know which sensory strategies work for your kiddo, this is the time to use them.
Now, besides calming the caveman, what else can you do for a retained Moro?
Integrating the Moro 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. For instance, can you imagine being a cheerleader and having a retained Moro? The movement in space would kick in the automatic Moro movement pattern and there would be a very real likelihood that you would not be sticking the landing!
The activities that you do to help integrate the Moro reflex often imitate parts of the reflex itself, but should not stimulate the actual reflex. One of my favorite is the ‘starfish’. Start sitting on a beanbag or low chair, looking down with your chin tucked in. Cross your arms and legs with your right arm and leg on top of the left arm and leg. Then, open up your arms and legs as wide as possible while leaning back and looking up. Return to the starting position but this time put the left arm and left leg on top.
Doing activities every day to integrate the Moro 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 Moro reflex and SPD.