What are primitive reflexes?

What are primitive reflexes?

Primitive reflexes begin in utero; they are repetitive, involuntary or automatic movements in response to stimuli that are essential for the development of head control, muscle tone, sensory integration and overall development.

developing fetus

They protect a developing fetus, aid the birthing process and contribute to later, more mature postural reflexes. As the baby grows, ideally these primitive reflexes will “integrate” into the growing brain. They will no longer be active as the practice of these movements do their intended job and movements become more controlled and voluntary.

Movement is critical to integrating primitive reflexes.

Vision and movement go hand-in-hand, as vision guides movement. The integration of primitive reflexes allows us to move through our spatial world as we develop through early childhood stages of life. Holding our head up for the first time, rolling over, crawling and creeping, walking, skipping – all of these require the basic building blocks that began with primitive reflexes.


From gross motor to fine motor (handwriting, tying shoes) to ocular motor (eye movements), each stage of development is affected by the timely integration of primitive reflexes.

What causes primitive reflexes to be retained?

There are many reasons which may contribute to primitive reflexes remaining “active”, or retained.

Retained primitive reflexes may be the result of:

  • Stress of the mother and/or baby during pregnancy (birth trauma, breech birth, Cesarean birth, induced birth)
  • Lack of movement in utero (due to low amniotic fluid, for example)
  • Infants spend extended time in car seats/carriers, jumpers, walkers, which restrict movements that are required for healthy brain development.
  • Illness, trauma, injury, chronic stress
  • Other developmental delays

Children and adults can experience symptoms from retained reflexes. Reflexes that are integrated may become reactivated later by injury, trauma, illness or stress.

Retained reflexes affect vision and learning

When primitive reflexes haven’t integrated within the appropriate time frame, it is important to revisit the missing developmental stages. Movement activities will help rebuild the foundation and create new neural pathways. Primitive reflex integration as part of a Vision Therapy program involves specific movement patterns which make it possible to retrain the brain, our control center for these reflexes.

As we enter a school setting, and new set of learning skills requires strong functional vision skill. More than 80% of classroom learning comes via visual pathways; having 20/20 eyesight (visual acuity) is only one part of our visual system. How our brain interprets the information coming through our eyes (visual processing) is the result of a very complex visual system. Eye tracking, eye teaming and focusing are all part of this complex system.

At Hope Clinic, we assess the primitive reflex integration of only the specific reflexes that are related to vision and vision development.

If our patients need any of the vision-related reflexes integrated, we assign home movement therapy in order to support optimal vision skill progress and development.

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