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  • Writer's pictureDr. Stephens-Sarlós Erzsébet

The inhibition of primitive reflexes. Why it is worthwhile performing sensorimotor exercises with your child every day.

David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author, writes in several of his books, including "The Brain: The Story of You," that every human brain is only "half-baked" at birth.

The brain

This means that while the fundamental structure of the brain is genetically programmed, its development and the formation of more complex organization heavily depend on internal and external environmental influences and experiences. The brain's plasticity, or its ability to shape and adapt to the environment, plays a crucial role in this process.

Environmental influences, such as social interactions, learning, and various sensory experiences, fundamentally impact brain development and maturation. Eagleman points out that movement and physical activity play a particularly important role in the formation and strengthening of neural connections. Active movement stimulates neurons and promotes the formation of new synapses (connections) and even the generation of new neurons, which are essential for the development and fine-tuning of brain functions. Thus, childhood movement and play are crucial not only for physical development but also for the brain's maturation processes.

The "half-mature" state of the brain provides the opportunity for the individual to adapt to their specific environment and challenges, which is fortunate, as the brain is a "flexible entity" capable of adjusting to various environments. This flexibility ensures continuous development, allowing the brain to learn and grow throughout life, responding to new information and experiences. Through such adaptive processes, the brain can optimize its functioning, which is fundamental to individual development and cognitive abilities. Ideally, the interplay between genetic foundations and environmental influences determines the brain's ultimate maturity and functionality, shaping human existence and operation.

During children's development, the changes in the nervous system are almost miraculous. Within a few months, a helpless infant becomes a toddler, then a running child who soon rides a bike, learns to swim, stand on their hands, or performs amazing tricks on a skateboard. Simultaneously, the crying baby begins to utter the first syllables and words, then starts speaking in sentences. They ask questions about the world and soon can articulate their own opinions.

Small boy running in the forest

The development has a wonderful "starter motor," which is none other than the multitude of primitive reflexes. But why are these infant reflexes important, and what impact do they have on children's development? Well, these automatic movement sequences operate independently of consciousness, and besides being responsible for defense, feeding, adjusting our body position, and supporting sensory perception, they stimulate and develop certain areas of the cerebral cortex. When the cortex "matures," the neurons produce a neurotransmitter that blocks each primitive reflex, indicating the cortex's maturity.

Therefore, the brain of a child in whom primitive reflexes is still present is CRYING OUT FOR HELP. The help is movement. DAILY AND PURPOSEFUL MOVEMENT.

Children exercising

What kind of movement should be done?

Every movement leaves a mark on the nervous system. Each movement is converted into an electrical signal that stimulates different parts of the cerebral cortex. The emphasis here is on "different," because when a child has several retained primitive reflexes, it matters which exercises they perform. During early childhood, each primitive reflex, after some months, stimulates a specific area of the cortex. The cells in this area will produce the neurotransmitter that eventually inhibits the primitive reflex, thereby signaling the maturity of the cortex. Hence, there is a separate set of exercises for each primitive reflex. These are more effective for reflex inhibition than anything else.

Why is it important to perform targetted exercises daily, even if only for 10-20 minutes?

Imagine a child learning to play the piano who practices only once a week for 120 minutes. Obviously, they won't progress as well as if they practiced 15-20 minutes every single day. Similarly, we don't see an athlete training intensely on Monday and then doing nothing for the rest of the week. The nervous system needs regular stimulation as well as rest. Why?

Regular movement generates new neurons. Daily systematic training stimulates the formation of new synapses, or connections between neurons. This allows the newly generated neurons to integrate into the network. These connections are crucial for learning, memory, and motor coordination.

Regular movement ensures the continuous production of various neurotransmitters that are involved in the stimulation and inhibition of neural processes. Among these neurotransmitters, GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) plays a significant role in reducing a person’s irritability or sensitivity and inhibiting primitive reflexes.


These exercises are not dangerous!

Exercises that inhibit primitive reflexes are based on natural movements such as crawling, climbing, balancing, bending, rolling, etc. These movements naturally occur during children's developmental stages, making them safe and appropriate for healthy children.

The exercises that inhibit primitive reflexes are low-intensity and do not require significant physical effort. The goal is to perform fine and controlled movements that do not excessively strain the child's body.

The exercises can be playfully incorporated into the daily "routine," making them enjoyable and ensuring that children are happy to do them. The playfulness reduces stress, and the regularity decreases any risk of injury.

When supervised by a parent, teacher, or developmental specialist the effectiveness of these exercises is significantly enhanced. Since parents spend the most time with the child, they can achieve the most. Of course, an enthusiastic teacher or other specialist working with children can also be effective, but we especially recommend performing daily exercises at home. My book Rewiring the Brain and my exercise video packages are available to parents and teachers to help them correctly perform the exercises.

A mother helping her son perform exercises

What can we expect from regular practice of these exercises?

Exercises that inhibit primitive reflexes support the maturation of the nervous system, facilitating the integration and suppression of primitive reflexes and the development of conscious movements.

Regular practice contributes to the development of fine motor and gross motor skills, which are especially important for daily activities such as writing, drawing, sports activities, and learning to play musical instruments.

The maturity of the nervous system is the foundation for the development of skills necessary for learning, as regular practice contributes to the cognitive abilities of children.

Reflex-inhibiting exercises can reduce hyperactivity and attention deficits, positively impacting children's behavior and overall well-being.

Additionally, these exercises aid in the precise processing of sensory stimuli from the body and the external environment, improving perception and sensory accuracy. The nervous system will be able to filter and reduce incoming disruptive signals, potentially eliminating heightened sensory seeking or excessive sensory sensitivity.

When should exercises be done to inhibit primitive reflexes?


When deciding whether to do exercises with your child at home, consider the advice of a retired colleague of mine, who was a psychologist and a child developmental educator:

Decades ago, “developmental exercises” were an integral part of children's daily lives. They climbed trees, played cat's cradle, engaged in playful interactions, did somersaults, or rolled on the ground, all while unconsciously developing themselves. Every day, they improved at home, on the playground, or on the street. Children still need daily developmental activities, but given our changed environment, it is essential to focus on "sensorimotor development" to ensure this occurs effectively.

A father playing with his daughter


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