Moro Reflex

In our last article, we discussed the tonic labyrinthine reflex, what its implications are if it is not integrated, and what we can do to break the pattern. In this article, we are going to take a look at another reflex, known as the Moro reflex.

When this reflex is elicited, it has an effect on the child’s muscle tone. It occurs in response to a loss of physical support, or when the baby feels as if it is falling. It results in spreading of the arms, followed by bringing in of the arms. Crying usually occurs when the reflex is complete.

The reflex is present from birth and should be integrated by 4 months of age. It is theorised that the function of the reflex was to help an infant cling to their mother while being carried around, allowing the infant to embrace their mother if it began to fall. It is a response to unexpected change, and acts as the child’s “fight or flight” response. Once integrated, it is replaced by the “startle” response.

If the Moro reflex is not fully integrated but remains present in children the following difficulties may occur. Difficulties in coordination can develop, resulting in poor sequencing skills. The child may experience difficulties with balance, affecting their gross motor skills negatively. They may experience motion sickness or dislike loud noises. Children with an unintegrated Moro reflex are often shy and dislike change.

During early school years, avoidance in the participation of new games may be observed. The child is continuously in “fight or flight” mode because the Moro reflex has a heightened response to that of the startle reflex. This can result in heightened levels of anxiety, poor impulse control, and perceived hyperactivity. They find it difficult to ignore background noises, resulting in poor concentration at school. Continuous “fight or flight” mode further inhibits recall of information, resulting in poor memory and learning difficulties.

Identification of this reflex is thus very important as sometimes the effect of the reflex may be so slight that it is difficult to pick up. A comprehensive occupational therapy assessment tests for the presence of the Moro reflex. This can also be done at home by asking your child to stand with their arms across their chest and eyes closed. Get your child to fall backwards into your arms while their eyes remain closed. If their arms flail outwards instead of remaining on their chest, then it is likely that the Moro reflex is still present.  

Luckily, integration of this reflex is still possible with a little work. In order for the reflex to disappear, we need to break the natural and unconscious pattern that takes place. Activities achieving this can be done during an occupational therapy treatment session. A child can also perform what is called the star fish movement. This is done by getting the child to lie on their back. The child will then cross his/her arms over one another and legs over one another (if the left am is over the right arm, then the left leg must be over the right leg). The child then opens up his legs and arms, stretching out like a starfish before crossing their arms and legs over one another, changing which arm and leg is on top. This alternating movement is repeated. Incorporating this into a game with your child is always a good way to encourage them to perform this movement. If you participate in this activity with your child, they may further be encouraged to repeat this movement multiple times. Use this as an opportunity to have fun!

In summary, the Moro reflex is naturally found in infants up until the age of 4 months. It results in involuntary movement of the arms when the child perceives a loss of support. If not integrated, it can have a negative effect on balance, as well as a negative influence on the child’s memory and their response to the environment. Integrating of the reflex involves activities where the natural pattern of the reflex is broken.

I hope this article offers some understanding on this primitive reflex and the implications it can have if it is still present in your child, even if the presence is slight. Remember, integration of this reflex is still possible through the use of occupational therapy and home activities. Keep an eye out for our next articles where more primitive reflexes will be discussed.

Happy parenting!