What is the rooting reflex?
For many first-time parents, the rooting reflex is one that may seem strange at first. However, this sucking reflex is one of the most primitive reflexes in babies. In the rooting reflex, one of the important infantile reflexes, the newborn reacts at the instant their cheeks are stroked. This stimulation causes an immediate response in your baby. Your baby’s response will generally be one where they turn their neck and head to the direction that they are being stroked in. In addition to that, they will pursue their lips and displaying sucking motions . This is all in preparation for them to begin using their sucking reflex.
The rooting reflex is an important one for your infant to grasp. When your infant is able to display signs of the rooting reflex, it is an indication that they have a healthy and normal nervous system. This is also an indication that the frontal lobe and the spinal cord are also developing properly.
Rooting reflex test in newborns
There is a simple test that your child’s doctor will perform when looking for this reflex. Your health care provider will make your baby lie on a soft padded bed. Then they will begin stroking your baby’s cheeks. The baby will react positively by turning their ace in the direction of the doctor’s hand. In addition to that, your baby will open their mouth to search for the nipple or food source .
You do not have to go to the doctor’s office to test this reflex either. You can easily do it right at home. While supporting your baby’s head, lie them down in a comfortable position on a flat surface. Take a clean hand and stroke a finger on either one of your baby’s cheeks. The movements that you will be looking for are ones where your infant tries to move their head and neck around so that they can grasp your finger with their lips and suck on it.
The video given below is a perfect example of rooting reflex displayed by a newborn when their cheeks are stroked.
How long does rooting reflex last in babies
This primitive reflex is highly active in babies until the time they are three to four months of age, after which it gradually starts disappearing . Some infants may continue to react to the stimulus on their cheeks for a few more months after. Typically, this should not be too much cause for concern . For breastfed babies, you may notice that even after this four-month period, your baby will continue to crane their head and neck towards you when you hold them close to your chest. These movements are all normal as they are your baby’s way of indicating to you that they want to eat.
How does the rooting reflex function
The survival reflex also referred to as the search reflex, is nature’s way of helping babies to get to the nipple or bottle while feeding . As your infant grows, you will continue to see that when their cheeks are stroked, they will continue to root out their source of food. You can best see this reflex in action when you hold your child and they root towards your chest. Although initially, this rooting reflex is involuntary, it becomes voluntary as your child gets older.
What are the benefits of the rooting reflex?
Overall, this reflex helps to allow your infant to open their mouth whenever their cheeks are stroked or touched, whether they are hungry or not. Sometimes, parents might mistake this gesture for hunger. Many parents will misread this and try to feed them even after their stomachs are full .
Absent rooting reflex and how to treat it
Rooting reflex may be absent in newborns if they are born prematurely, have some neurological disorders, or CNS depression (due to ingestion of certain drugs by the mother during pregnancy) . A clear sign that there may be an issue with this reflex is when there is a lack of response after stimulation of the cheeks including when they are stroked. If your child is born with an absent rooting reflex, there have been proven methods of remedying this.
In studies conducted, high-risk neonates were given stimulations in the tissues surrounding their mouth to initiate the sucking, rooting, and swallowing reflex. This experiment with added stimulation proved beneficial for newborns with feeding dysfunctionality. Overall, this stimulation helped babies to get the essential nutrients they need. In addition to that, the result was lessened for intravenous or gavage feeding that tends to comes with certain complications.
Retained rooting reflex
While not common, some babies will retain the rooting reflex well beyond their third and fourth month. If your infant continues to respond to stimulation on the cheek in the manner of the rooting reflex, there may be some accompanying symptoms your child will experience. Retained rooting reflex may lead to the following symptoms:
- Hypersensitivity in the mouth and lip region 
- Displaying fussy behavior while eating (mainly with solid foods) 
- Frequent sucking of thumb or bringing thumb to lips 
- Having trouble in chewing or swallowing 
- Problems in speaking, articulating, and proper form of lips [8, 12]
- Dribbling and drooling 
Retained rooting reflex in adults
The rooting reflex may be retained in adults too. Adults who suffer from severe dementia may retain the rooting reflex as they progress through the disease. . However, this is something that can be corrected. By bringing the hormonal functions of the thyroid, adrenaline, and pituitary gland to a normal state in adults, the rooting reflex can be eliminated.
Additional reflexes in infants
The rooting reflex is not the only type of reflex that will show proper development of your infant. There are other reflexes that provide you with insight that your baby’s nervous system and spinal cord are functioning properly. Here are some additional reflexes and the respective response that you should expect your little one to display.
The normal Moro reflex is one that gauges your baby’s ability to assess the loss of support. Essentially, the Moro reflex allows your baby to respond to the sensation of falling. Your baby should be able to display this reflex up to three or four months after birth. When your baby feels the sensation of falling, their normal Moro reflex will include these three distinct responses:
- Your baby will spread out their arms (this is called abduction)
- They will bring their arms in together (this is called adduction)
- They will begin to cry and flail their legs
Hyper Startle Reflex
While not common, there are instances where the rooting reflex will be accompanied by a neurological condition called the hyper startle reflex. An infant who displays this reflex will show an extreme or exaggerated response to tactile stimulation. This stimulation can be anywhere on their foot, toes, neck, leg, near their lips, and even their head. In addition to the tactile stimulation, it is usually elicited by a loud noise too. The behavior that is elicited by the loud noise not only will startle your infant, but it will cause them to frantically jar their body in a manner that mimics a seizure.
In some cases, this reflex action is accompanied by stiffness of one or more muscle groups. Your baby may have a muscle that is flexed beyond their control due to the startle. The responses that are elicited by the hyper startle reflex can be cause for concern as they may indicate an underlying condition with their nervous system or spinal cord. If this reflex action is something you may be concerned about with your child, be sure to call their primary care doctor.
The rooting reflex helps the baby to get ready to suck. In addition to that, this reflex will give your baby the ability to grasp onto the breast or bottle when it is time to eat. The hand-to-mouth reflex works in coordination with sucking and rooting, leading babies to suck their fingers and hands [2, 14]. As your baby grows, you will notice that they will transition to sucking their foot, toes and even parts of their leg. Overall, this developed sucking reflex will have elicited a sense of calm over your child. Once they grow out of rooting, the memorized muscle movement of sucking will be one that will help calm them down on their own.
Tonic Neck Fencing Reflex
This next reflex is another one primitive reflex in newborn reflex activity. The tonic neck fencing reflex is named after the way a baby positions themselves once they are laying on a flat surface and sleeping. With this reflex, babies position their hands in a manner in which they look like they are taking a fencing stance. This reflex is a natural and primitive response by newborns. Parents will be able to observe that when a baby turns their head via the neck reflex to one side when they are sleeping, they will also extend the arm and leg of the same side as well. The flexed arm and leg are your baby’s way of protecting themselves.
Typically, you will see this reflex action in infants up until about 6 to 7 months. After that, your little one should start waning away from it.
Palmar Grasp Reflex
This next reflex has to deal with the manner in which your baby reacts to objects placed in their hand. These grasp reflexes happen when you place an object in your child’s palm. Instinctively, your baby will grip it. You will also notice that if you try to take the object out of their palm, their grip will get tighter.
The grasp reflex starts to develop when your baby enters the 11th to 15th week of gestational age. When your baby is two to three months old, you will notice that this grasp reflex becomes less apparent.
Although it may seem that your baby knows what they are doing, they actually do not. This muscle movement is simply instinctive. As your child grows, this grasp reflex will be something they will be able to control.
The plantar reflex is one that deals with your child’s foot. When the plantar surface of your child’s foot is stroked, your child’s instinctive response will be to fan out their toes.
To try the plantar reflex out on your child, you will simply need to stroke the lateral part of the plantar surface of their foot. You may or may not need to hold their leg depending on their comfort level. You can also do this when their foot is flexed out. Start by stroking your finger across their heel towards their big toe. When you do this, the plantar reflex kicks and they’ll fan out the rest of their toes.
The gag reflex is another one of the primary reflexes that reflect a positively developing nervous system. It is also commonly called the cough reflex. Essentially, the gag reflex is elicited when your baby starts learning how to eat solids. When your baby is eating solids, the foreign muscle movement of eating may trigger a cough reflex. When your child continues working through the introduction of solids, you will notice that the gag reflex will rescind. If your baby continues to gag, this response may be a sign of a sensitive gag reflex. If this is the case, then you will want to speak with your child’s physician.
Why babies need the rooting reflex
This sucking reflex newborn babies display is one of the main ways your baby lets you know that their nervous system is developing properly. When your baby is born, the rooting reflex will be one of the primary reflexes your doctor will be looking for. In addition to that, other reflexes including the neck reflex, grasp reflex, and the others listed above all help your child’s care provider determine whether or not the spinal cord and nervous system are developing properly.
For more information on the rooting reflex and all other reflexes, be sure to speak with your child’s primary care provider.