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  • Writer's pictureDr. Stephens-Sarlós Erzsébet

The connection between movement and infant reflexes

The Grasping Reflex

gyerekek játszanak a fán

My parents always considered an appropriate level of movement essential to our lives, perhaps because both were athletes and international rowers. My mother was a third-place finisher in the European Championships, and my father has a silver Olympic medal. They consciously and subconsciously felt the joy of movement and its beneficial effects. I'm sure that's why they let us play in the nearby woods all summer long. They weren't worried we would fall out of a tree or come home covered in dirt. After I turned ten, regular sports replaced forest adventures. I went to train at least five times a week (and later much more).


Luckily, my grandparents also knew something about sensorimotor stimulation. When I was a baby, my maternal grandfather rocked me to sleep so effectively that my grandmother said he "shook the soul out of me." My paternal grandmother played games with my sister and me that now form part of numerous sensorimotor development programs.


We had gymnastics class three times a week in kindergarten, and "Bálint Laci" visited us twice with his violin and we danced to his music. Since I was slightly "hyperactive," my parents enrolled in extra physical education at school. We had six physical education classes a week, and ALL OF OUR TEACHERS RAN EVERY CLASS PERFECTLY.


I've been involved with movement my whole life; as a physical education teacher, therapeutic physical education teacher, coach, and therapist. I'm still doing research in this area. The more information I gather, the more I feel that my knowledge is still very limited. However, I also know that movement has enormous significance to human development.

Children in a Physical Education class

Why? Our lives begin with movement. The sperm that is capable of fertilizing the egg is the one that can move with the appropriate intensity and reach its goal the fastest. Even in fetal life, stimuli cause the baby to respond with movement. After birth, many reflexes begin to work, allowing the baby to suck, turn its head, lift its head, and kick. Through reflexive functioning, it can grip and experience the quality of different materials and surfaces. It stores the acquired information in its brain, compares, analyses, and evaluates it. The sensory area of the cerebral cortex develops more and more due to the movement of the thumb, fingers, and mouth. It's no coincidence that the thumb, fingers, and mouth are most represented in the sensory area of the cerebral cortex.


There are nearly one hundred so-called "starter" reflexes. Without them, we wouldn't be able to get through the postnatal period.


The codes of infant reflexes are in our genes. We do not learn them; they are innate. The response is triggered once the stimulus arrives, and the body returns to rest when the stimulus is gone. Some of them last only a few weeks, others work for a few months, but one or two respond to the appropriate stimulus for a year or two. However, at latest by the age of three, all of them must become dormant.

A parent holding a baby's hands

Such reflexes that are still triggered after this period can cause problems in many areas of life. The development of movement, or speech, can be delayed. The child may be impatient and have difficulty coping with unexpected situations. In others, the unwanted effect of a reflex manifests itself in clumsiness or bedwetting at night. And the problems go on. Many people compensate throughout their lives and do not know why they cannot read more than one or two pages at a time or why their attention span falls apart after five minutes of concentration.


When is an infant reflex most likely to disappear? When it is triggered with the appropriate quality, intensity, frequency, and duration. So, for example, if a baby's muscles are too rigid or too lax (hypotonic), it is unlikely that the criteria will be met for the reflex to become dormant since neither the quantity nor the quality of their movement will be sufficient.


Let's take an example. Consider the Grasping Reflex, which has a huge role in tactile sensation. For this reflex to be inhibited after its purpose is complete, it must be present in the baby's life with appropriate strength, frequency, and quality. If the child's muscle tone is not right (too tight or loose), they will grasp weakly or not at all. Grasping would be the stimulus that "matures" the appropriate part of the cerebral cortex; this is important because the mature cortical area is capable of inhibiting the reflex.


What happens if the Grasping Reflex persists? On one hand, it becomes difficult for the thumb to oppose the other fingers, making it complicated to hold a pencil, use a spoon, or other tools. A characteristic of the Grasping Reflex is that if one palm is stimulated, there will not only be a response there, but the other hand will also grasp. The effect is to take energy away when writing, drawing, or coloring; in the case of these children, it also makes it more difficult for a dominant hand to become established.


A doctor named Babkin discovered a very strong connection between the grasping and sucking reflexes in the brain. As a result, there is a high likelihood that not only the grasping will fail to be inhibited but also the sucking reflex if the grasping reflex persists. Often, you will see a child or even an adult who sticks out their tongue or bites their lips while writing, drawing, or doing fine motor movements with their fingers. (I will write about the effects of the persisting sucking reflex in another post.)

A baby's hand holding the mother's hand

In addition to problems when writing, it is also characterised by fidgeting, touching everything, and constant tactile stimulation.


Interestingly, infant reflexes "come back" towards the end of life if someone lives to old age. This is especially true of the Grasping Reflex. The explanation is that the cerebral cortex loses its intensity of function and that particular cortical inhibition disappears.


It has been observed that the appearance of certain diseases is preceded by the appearance of reflexes such as the Grasping reflex (as well as other reflexes). This is true of certain types of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, and Parkinson's disease. In these pathological processes, the return of a particular infant reflex occurs due to the disappearance of cortical inhibition.


The Grasping Reflex can be relatively easily tested for, and with a bit of diligence, a person can quickly eliminate it. This applies to both a five-year-old child who is not yet able to draw and a person over 70 years old. (More information about this is in my book The Stephens-Sarlós Program, now available in the English language, and you can use my video exercise package designed to inhibit the Grasping and Sucking reflexes.)


Think about it! This is just one of many reflexes that can make a child's or adult's daily life more difficult. Why not do something about it if it is possible?



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