Retained Primitive Reflexes: The Key Clinic's Ultimate Guide

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

At The Key Clinic, we offer Neurodevelopmental programmes that mature the nervous system by integrating ‘retained reflexes’ in children and adults that should have fulfilled their developmental role and disappeared long ago. Today we are answering the most common question that parents ask us: what are ‘retained reflexes’ and what do they do?

What are Retained Primitive Reflexes?

Primitive reflexes are repetitive, automatic movements that provide the foundation for all motor coordination skills and we ALL have them in our early life. Primitive reflexes are essential during infancy to develop head control, muscle tone, sensory integration and visual development. Integration of these reflexes is necessary for a child's development of spontaneous postural movement and proper visual-motor development.

However, these reflexes should not be present past very early childhood. When they are still present beyond this stage, retained reflexes can act as ‘blockages’ to further development. The obstacles they create manifest as everything from handwriting difficulty to a lack of balance or ‘clumsiness’.

This guide will take you through the most common retained primitive reflexes, explain what they are and list the indicators associated with them.

School children sitting at a desk writing illustrating primitive reflexes
The obstacles retained primitive reflexes can create can manifest as issues with handwriting.

What is a Retained Moro Reflex?

The Moro reflex serves as a baby’s primitive fight or flight reaction. It is usually inhibited by around 4 months of post-natal life and replaced by an adult “startle” reflex. When the Moro reflex is retained in an older child it becomes an automatic uncontrollable overreaction to any type of stimulus, therefore overriding the higher decision making center of the brain. Retention of the Moro reflex can present the following challenges: hyperactivity, extreme sensitivity to sudden movement, noise or light, sleeping problems, impulsive behaviours, inappropriate behavioral responses, food sensitivities, emotional and social immaturity, poor adaptation skills.

Retained Moro Reflex Symptoms:

  • Easily Distracted

  • Hypersensitive to sensory stimuli like light and sound and touch

  • Over sensitivity to motion causing car sickness

  • Or under sensitivity to sensory stimuli

  • Overreacts

  • Impulsive and aggressive

  • Emotional immaturity

  • Withdrawn or timid and shy

  • ADD

  • ADHD

  • Autism Spectrum

  • Asperger’s

  • Sensory Disorders

  • Difficulty making friends

  • Depression

  • Health Problems

  • Allergies and Asthma

  • Anger or Emotional Outbursts

  • Poor Balance and Coordination

  • Poor Digestion and Food Sensitivities

  • Even if they don’t display any of these symptoms, it is a good idea to do the quick test on them, as there may be other functions that are affected by it that are still unknown

Baby holding its feet to illustrate moro reflex
The Moro reflex serves as a baby’s primitive fight or flight reaction.

What is a Retained ATNR Reflex?

The ATNR reflex (asymmetrical tonic neck reflex) is activated by turning the head to the left or right side. As the head is turned, the arm and leg on the same side will extend while the opposite limbs bend. If not fully integrated, the ATNR reflex can cause difficulties with: hand-eye coordination, written expression, crossing midline, visual tracking, bilateral integration (use of both sides of the body simultaneously), and hand-dominance.

Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex Symptoms:

  • Reading Difficulties

  • Dyslexia

  • Hand-eye coordination problems

  • Awkward walk or gait

  • Difficulty in school

  • Immature handwriting

  • Difficulty in sports

  • Maths and reading issues

  • Poor balance

  • Eye, ear, foot, and hand dominance will not be on the same side

  • Difficulty in things that require crossing over the midline of the body

  • Poor depth perception

  • Shoulder, neck and hip problems

  • Even if they don’t display any of these symptoms, it is a good idea to do the quick test on them, as there may be other functions that are affected by it that are still unknown.

What is a Retained TLR Reflex?

The TLR (tonic labyrinthine reflex) is associated with balance and coordination of the extremities. This reflex is activated by bending the head forward or backwards (head forward - the body and limbs curl inwards, head backwards - the body and torso straighten and extend). If not fully integrated the alignment of the head with the rest of the body will be uncoordinated. Proper head and neck alignment is necessary for balance, visual tracking, auditory processing and organised muscle tone, which are all vital to the ability to focus and pay attention.

Retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex Symptoms:

  • Poor balance and spatial awareness

  • Tense muscles and toe walking

  • Difficulty holding still and concentrating

  • Muscle tone issues

  • Poor posture

  • Difficulty paying attention when head is down (at a desk or reading)

  • Dyspraxia

  • Poor sense of rhythm

  • Gets motion sickness easily

  • Prefers to walk on toes

  • Speech and Auditory difficulty

  • Spatial issues

  • Bumps into things and people more than normal

  • Even if they don’t display any of these symptoms, it is a good idea to do the quick test on them, as there may be other functions that are affected by it that are still unknown.

School child sitting at desk illustrating retained reflexes
Retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex can result in difficulty paying attention when at a desk or head is down.

What is a Retained STNR Reflex?

STNR (symmetrical tonic neck reflex) - The STNR reflex causes the arms to bend and the legs to extend when the head is bent down and causes the opposite - legs bent, arms straight - when the head is bent backwards. If the STNR reflex remains present in an older child, it can cause difficulty with: integration of upper and lower portions of the body, sitting posture, typical muscle tone development, and poor hand-eye coordination.

Symptoms of STNR (symmetrical tonic neck reflex):

  • Poor posture standing

  • Sits with slumpy posture

  • Low muscle tone

  • Ape-like walk

  • Problems with attention especially in stressful situations

  • Vision accommodation and tracking problems

  • Difficulty learning to swim

  • Difficulty reading

  • Usually skips crawling

  • Sits with legs in a W position

  • ADD

  • ADHD

  • Hyper activity or fidgety

  • Poor hand eye coordination

  • Problems looking between near and far sighted objects, like copying from a chalkboard

  • Sloppy eater

  • Rotated pelvis

  • Even if they don’t display any of these symptoms, it is a good idea to do the quick test on them, as there may be other functions that are affected by it that are still unknown.

What is a Retained Spinal Galant Reflex?

The spinal galant reflex exists to help babies move their hips as they move through the birth canal and is elicited when the side of the lower spine is stroked gently. If not fully integrated, it can result in difficulties with potty training, concentration, posture, and digestion and can cause excessive fidgeting and hip movement while seated in a chair

Symptoms of the Spinal Galant Reflex:

  • ADHD like symptoms

  • Struggles with written and verbal instructions

  • Loses focus frequently

  • Can’t sit quietly

  • Often chooses to do homework or watch TV while lying on the floor

  • Higher chances of bed-wetting when child is potty-trained

  • Dislikes sports or other physically engaging activities

  • Gravitates to loose fitting clothing around hips

  • Unbalanced gait

  • Struggles with running

  • Uncoordinated climbing stairs for a long period of time

  • Trips frequently

What is a Retained Fear Paralysis Reflex?

The FPR is a withdrawal reflex that emerges in the embryonic stage. During this stage the embryo reacts to stress and stimulation by withdrawing and freezing. As the foetus's tactile awareness develops, withdrawal upon contact gradually lessens. It is thought that this reflex is the first step in learning to cope with stress. Ideally, the FPR merges into the Moro reflex and has become inactive before birth. If the FPR is not fully integrated at birth it may contribute to life-long challenges related to fear. People with the FPR active may often be very anxious and tend to veer towards negativity which can prevent them from easily moving forward to living a meaningful, interactive life. An active FPR often goes hand-in-hand with an unintegrated Moro reflex.

Possible long term effects of an unintegrated FPR are:

  • Shallow, difficult breathing

  • Underlying anxiety or negativity

  • Insecure, low self-esteem

  • Depression/isolation/withdrawal

  • Constant feelings of overwhelm

  • Extreme shyness, fear in groups

  • Excessive fear of embarrassment

  • Fear of separation from a loved one, clinging

  • Sleep & eating disorders

  • Feeling stuck

  • Elective mutism

  • Withdrawal from touch

  • Extreme fear of failure, perfectionism

  • Phobias

  • Aggressive or controlling behaviour, craves attention

  • Low tolerance to stress

What is a Retained Palmar Reflex?

The Palmar Reflex a.k.a. Grasp Reflex is seen when an infant grips around an object that touches their palm. This is normal and helps the baby learn to grip and hang on to things with their hands. The Palmar Reflex develops in the third month of gestation and should disappear at around 3-6 months of age as they gain hand control. It is needed for hand-eye coordination, proper vision, and direction/distance judgement. If it isn’t properly integrated it can contribute to an array of problems.

Retained Palmar Reflex Symptoms:

  • Poor handwriting

  • Poor pencil grip

  • Poor fine muscle control

  • Poor dexterity

  • Poor fine motor skills

  • Poor vision coordination

  • Slumpy posture when using hands

  • Back aches when sitting

  • Sticks tongue out when using hands

  • Poor pencil grip

  • Poor ability to put thoughts to paper

  • Dysgraphia

  • Speech and language problems

  • Anger control issues

  • Even if they don’t display any of these symptoms, it is a good idea to do the quick test on them, as there may be other functions that are affected by it that are still unknown.

Neurodevelopmental Therapy

As you can see, retained primitive reflexes vary and have a range of presenting symptoms, but they can be treated using what is called ‘Neurodevelopmental Therapy’. At The Key Clinic, our Neurodevelopmental programmes are personalised to each patient by practitioners based on the findings of our rigorous assessment process.

If you are experiencing reading difficulties or know someone who is, you can give our friendly team a call on 01635 761565 to discuss your situation and the options available to you.

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