Understanding the impact of retained primitive reflexes on emotional and mental health

Primitive reflexes are innate movement patterns that emerge in utero which help babies during the birth process as well as assist them in familiarising themselves to their new environment post birth.

Originating in the brainstem, primitive reflexes are activated by the birth process and kickstart the predetermined patterned movement responses typically triggered by sensory stimulation. These seemingly erratic infant movements happen without conscious effort but they lay the blueprint for our overall movements by teaching muscles to work together and against gravity.

Once a reflex has done its job it integrates into the hindbrain allowing for a more purposeful, sophisticated movement to develop. This series of developmental movements, built one on top of another, creates the foundational building blocks for all movement and subsequent interaction with our world. Nothing stands alone in our system and, while all retained reflexes impact our overall abilities across various domains thereby impacting confidence and self esteem, the most emotional of the reflexes is undoubtedly the Moro reflex.

A young girl sitting at a school desk and smiling
Essentially, the Moro reflex is an alarm signal associated with helplessness

The Moro reflex is the early ‘startle’ reflex seen in the healthy full-term neonate. The Moro plays a vital role in allowing the baby to take its first breath. The sudden change of temperature, bright lights, and overall stimulation ensures the baby uses its lungs for the first time. If a first breath is not taken, the doctor may well suspend the baby by its ankles and slap its back to elicit the Moro.

It is “hyper sensory” in nature and the only reflex which can be elicited by any sudden or unexpected sensory event, for example, a sudden change of position, a loud noise, a change of temperature, noxious tactile stimulation, a bright light, the baby’s own sudden movements. When ‘shocked’ in this way, the baby’s arms and legs shoot out (open out and extend), there is a sudden intake of breath, adrenaline and cortisol flood the system and the neonate freezes temporarily in this position before the arms and legs come in again to clasp onto its mother. The baby will usually then start to cry. Baby’s with upper motor neuron lesions do not have this reflex.

In the first few months of life, it is the baby’s only means of signalling an alarm call to the mother, should there be any possible danger. It is also thought to play a vital role in preventing sudden infant death syndrome.

Essentially, the Moro reflex is an alarm signal associated with helplessness and should normally have inhibited by 4-6 months of age, when we learn to assess the level of danger before responding. In some cases integration fails to occur further stimulating the Moro nature.

Signs of a retained Moro include:


*dilated pupils that are slow to react to light, cause poor night vision and hypersensitivity to light


*hypersensitive to sounds, difficulty shutting out background noise


*motion sickness, problems with balance


Hypersensitive to touch, may not like affection or be excessively clingy (depending on the stage)

*Low tolerance for stress

*Withdraw and shutting off from others

*Afraid of unfamiliar situations and to explore the world

*Lack of inner security needed to be spontaneous and flexible, react to changes in routine

* Lack of emotional security and flexibility which may lead to manipulating others

*Children may become overtired after being exposed to excessive stimuli; ex., may need to sleep after school

If the Moro persists into later life it presents with varying emotional implications depending on the age & stage;

*Increased anxieties

*Emotional or “moody” temperament

*Gets angry easily, has emotional outbursts

* Struggles with low self-esteem/lack of confidence

*Separation anxiety, tendency to cling to caregiver “wanting to be rescued”.

At the Key Clinic we aim to integrate the Moro reflex, along with other retained reflexes through our reflex neurodevelopmental integration programmes which aid in overall emotional regulation thereby positively affecting overall emotional wellbeing and mental health.

“Jack is great at the moment and we've definitely seen a general improvement in all areas as he's sleeping like a king, eating many more things and happy to try things and his teachers have said that he's retaining information a little easier and his anxiety isn't crippling him any more!!! It's been great as so many people have commented on "what a changed boy he is" which is fab!!

Katie, Mother of Jack, December 2020 (FB)”


“Our daughter has suffered severely from sensory processing issues specifically in relation to noise levels and clothing. Her difficulties have manifested as negativity, sadness, anxiety and daily meltdowns – a huge challenge for our family life. Having completed the 10 day Key Auditory Therapy and Neurodevelopmental Movement programmes together with some cranial osteopathy, the transformation in our little girl can only be described as truly amazing. It is 5 weeks since completing the programmes and our daughter is completely unrecognisable; she is happy, much more at ease with herself, and with those around her, and her meltdowns seem to be a thing of the past.

We cannot believe the change; we could not have dreamed of nor hoped for any better. Thank you to everyone at The Key Clinic!

Berkshire Family, 2017


“Vincent was a very anxious child prior to coming to The Key Clinic, who was struggling academically at school and had low self-esteem. I can genuinely say that he is a completely different child today. Vincent is now a very happy little boy, who is confident and very comfortable in his own skin. He no longer struggles at school and has gone from having predominantly C/D type grades to majority Bs. He now enjoys learning and has the confidence to deal with life’s adventures. We will be forever indebted to the Key Clinic for helping Vincent and would highly recommend it. Thank you.

Vincent’s mother, September 2018”

Please contact us to find out more about our assessments, drug-free programmes and how we are able to support you!

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