What is the Rooting Reflex?

The rooting reflex is a primitive reflex seen among human infants and many nonhuman mammals. By “primitive reflexes,” people mean reflexes which originate in the central nervous system which are suppressed over time. Babies are born with a number of such reflexes which are designed to give them a headstart in life and ensure that they can survive. In the case of the rooting reflex, the reflex helps the baby find food.
This reflex actually first appears in utero, and can persist for up to a year after birth. When the baby’s cheek or mouth is touched, the baby will turn his or her head towards the sensation, working the mouth at the same time. The rooting reflex helps the baby latch on to the breast or bottle. This reflex is usually very strong and persistent, and if a baby fails to demonstrate the rooting reflex or other primitive reflexes, it can be a sign that there is something wrong.
People are sometimes confused by the rooting reflex, because whenever a new infant’s cheek or mouth is touched, he or she will respond by turning and opening the mouth. This can make it seem like the infant is hungry when this is not actually the case. The infant will also suckle things, due to the sucking reflex, and this may also be mistaken for a sign of hunger.
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This primitive reflex is sometimes called the searching reflex, because the infant is searching for the point of contact he or she just experienced. Other examples of primitive reflexes include the grasping reflex, which many people may have noticed when they interact with infants, because infants tend to grasp objects which come within reach. The startle reaction or Moro reflex, walking reflex, and Galant reflex are other types of primitive reflexes seen in babies.
During normal infant development, the primitive reflexes disappear over time. If they persist, it can be indicative of a developmental delay, and the child should be evaluated by a specialist. Primitive reflexes can also recur in the wake of a brain injury. When they do, it indicates that the part of the brain which usually suppresses these reflexes is no longer active or is no longer functioning normally. A neurologist can evaluate a patient to learn more about which reflexes are expressing. This information can be used to gather information about the condition of the patient’s brain, and to determine the precise location of the injury.

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