This is a word many parents may hear following an assessment, but what does it mean? Reflexes are involuntary or unconscious movements experienced in people. Have you ever visited the doctor and had your knee tapped with a hammer-type instrument, resulting in an uncontrolled movement of your leg? Then you have experienced a reflex. Some reflexes are present in infants to help with important developmental milestones, disappearing at a particular age when they are no longer needed. This disappearance is referred to as integration of the reflex; however, some of these reflexes may not be fully integrated and can cause slight, unwanted involuntary movements in children – so slight that we may not even notice them until they are tested. These small movements can make gross motor and fine motor activities more difficult, negatively impacting play and school work.
In order to understand our involuntary movement, another important term we need to understand when looking at reflexes is muscle tone. Muscle tone refers to the partial contractions of our muscles at rest, or our muscle’s resistance to being stretched by someone else while we are resting. It is important for maintaining our posture and can affect our flexibility. If we have increased tone, it is as if our muscles are contracting when they are supposed to be resting.
Reflexes have an involuntary effect on our muscle tone. When a reflex is elicited it causes an increase in the muscle tone of certain parts of our body depending on the reflex. This increase in tone in a particular muscle group results in involuntary movement of the limb that the particular muscle group is responsible for. When this process occurs in an infant it allows for involuntary yet functional movement that assists in developmental milestones such as rolling or crawling. Some of these early reflexes are thus very important in child development, but may be a hindrance if they are not integrated at the necessary time.
Over the next few articles, the following reflexes will be discussed in more detail:
Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)
Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)
Tonic labyrinth reflex
So to recap, important early reflexes are found in all infants and are significant for developmental milestones. They influence our muscle tone causing involuntary movements; however, if they are present for longer than is necessary it can become problematic.
I hope this article offers some insight into reflexes and allows you to feel more comfortable when you hear the word during a treatment or feedback session. Keep an eye out for next month when we will look at the asymmetrical tonic reflex, how it may impact the functioning of your child, and what can be done to help.