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Reflex-based Feeding

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

Babies are cute, snuggly and smell amazing, but they are also incredibly smart. They are born with this amazing ability to feed. It’s not something they need to be taught; It is something they just know how to do, hardwired into their brain and nervous system like a pre-programmed bit of information. This human blueprint has many activities pre-programmed, such as yawning, crying, sneezing, coughing and feeding.

so why can feeding your baby be so hard?

A baby is born with their brain already pre-programmed with this information, and the way a baby feeds is through activating a series of “reflexes”.

So when feeding isn’t going to plan, this is a sign that something is affecting this blueprint. More often, it isn’t the blueprint itself but ‘stuff’ overlying the blueprint making it tricky to access. Sometimes that isn’t the case which is why it’s absolutely essential to have an infant feeding specialist on board when working with feeding problems.

what are reflexes?

To keep it simple, let’s use a reflex that many of us will know, which is yawning. This is one of several theories explaining why we yawn, but reflexes always go through the same three phases – they need a stimulus, then it’s processed, and then there is an output:

1. Stimulus

A reflex firstly involves a stimulus – in this case, it would be low oxygen levels in the body. Receptors detect low oxygen and are stimulated, sending a message to the brain telling it to take action to increase the amount of oxygen.

2. Processing

The message travels from the receptors via nerves into the central nervous system, triggering the brain to carry out the pre-programmed response.

3. Output

The messages about what to do will travel by nerves from the brain to the parts of the body that need to act. For example, it might send messages to the jaw muscles telling them to contract to open wide. It will also send messages to the diaphragm muscle and those controlling the ribs to contract to enable you to take a deep breath. This will then be the yawn.

And there we have it—a reflex. You consciously didn’t have to do anything, your body knew how to do it all by itself, and it was a response to a stimulus.

let's now look at primitive reflexes...

Primitive reflexes is a term given to a group of reflexes that assist in the baby being born and are key to survival during those first few weeks. They emerge from the brainstem, the primitive part of the brain, which is a part of the brain shared by mammals, reptiles and humans. With age, higher centres of the brain start to establish and take over, and by 12 months in the brain will fully integrate many of these primitive reflexes. They haven’t disappeared, they are still there, but the higher centres dominate. The primitive reflexes are still there, doing their job, but they’re quietly humming in the background, doing their thing, ready to do pre-programmed actions like putting your arms out to cushion your fall should you trip.

These reflexes are active in babies and provide the training and foundations for later voluntary actions. So if we think about babies feeding, initially, it is purely reflex-driven. As these actions are repeated over and over and over again, those pathways in the nervous system become hard-wired. So as the primitive reflexes start to integrate and the higher centres start to become more dominant, the action of how to feed has been rehearsed so often that it continues, albeit the control is from a different part of the brain.

Babies are born with reflexes already in place. Over time they will integrate, and others will emerge. You may already have spotted some of these reflexes in your newborn, such as the ‘ Robinson’s hands grasp reflex’. The hands grasp reflex is triggered when you place your finger in your baby’s hand and they grasp it. This action of stimulation of the finger base leads to a message passing up to the brain and an output from the brain to the muscles of the hand telling them to contract. Isn’t that amazing?

so what happens next?

Over time, with typical neurodevelopment, this reflex will be integrated, and when the hand is touched, the fingers will no longer curl around. But what happens if it isn’t fully integrated? Some children retain these reflexes beyond the age we would expect, and these are referred to as ‘retained primitive reflexes’. Some evidence suggests that this can lead to learning difficulties and motor development problems alongside other developmental concerns.

The MNRI protocol is designed to integrate the primitive reflexes, help the brain use the correct motor response, and the process by which the system is reprogrammed to use the correct reflex. Having undertaken training in Dynamic & Postural Reflex Integration, Neurotactile Integration and Orofacial Reflex Integration, we incorporate these methods into our practice to help support infant feeding difficulties and help you achieve your goals.


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