Physiological Background of Persisting Early Childhood Reflexes

The tonus development (muscle tension) of an infant follows a physiological process. In this process, postural maturation (body alignment) follows a predetermined internal program. Body alignment proceeds from top to bottom, that is, from the head to the feet.

It is striking that the infant can lift its head from the prone position immediately after birth, independent of the rest of the body. This is the beginning of free head control, which must be trained in order to achieve completely free head control by the end of the first year of life. The head can then move independently of the rest of the body. This is a sign of timely maturation of the central nervous system (CNS).

If the immaturity of the CNS is not recognized in the first year of life, tonus disorders will be further solidified by the child’s movements, preventing early childhood reflexes from losing their involuntary effectiveness. If the incorrect tonic patterns persist, they will deform the body just as constantly flowing water deforms a stone. Behavioral abnormalities that inevitably result later will vary greatly in their expression and deformation but will have a limiting influence on the individual throughout their life. The person will never be able to live their full potential.

The Importance of Early Childhood Reflexes for the Movement System and Behavior Patterns

Every newborn has a large number of simple innate motor movements already in place, which Pavlov first called “unconditional reflexes” (Duden’s definition: innate, always occurring reactions to external stimuli). These early childhood reflexes enable the infant to survive. Reflex movements can be either dynamic or postural, meaning they either cause specific movements or specific postures. In stressful situations, they either cause flight or fight reactions or lead to freezing. The Moro reflex is among the dynamic reflexes, while the fear paralysis reflex is among the postural reflexes. Both forms can be observed in the uterus, assist during birth, and accompany the infant in the first phase of life.

Any movement learned in life, be it walking, running, jumping, dancing, riding, and any other complex movement, is learned based on the primary natural reflex patterns from infancy. The motor development of the baby forms the basis for all cognitive abilities, with each movement triggering a neurophysiological process. This means that connections are created in the brain that make it possible to access learned experiences. If the primary movement pattern has not been sufficiently trained, learning any new movement becomes difficult. It forms the basis for the maturation of voluntary movements in babies, children, and adults and helps other systems, such as cognitive functions and intellectual processes, to develop.

The development and maturation of early childhood reflexes, followed by integration into higher, controlled, and regulated movement systems, is essential for our ability to learn. The reflex reactions should no longer be present after their period of activity, but their movement patterns can be accessed consciously throughout life. With complete integration, this is possible without a disruptive motor reflex reaction interfering. The movement patterns of integrated reflexes form the foundation for the development of higher functions and systems. Their movement patterns – not the reflex reactions – are subordinate to higher structures and serve them by being accessible at any time. Reflex reactions, on the other hand, hinder the smooth execution of movement patterns and can even prevent newly learned movements. Thus, all reflexes and their timely activity and subsequent integration form the basis for our physical, psychological, and mental development.

If there is a latent reflex burden present, the reflex will flare up again when stress becomes too great. At that moment, one falls directly into the reflex pattern and is trapped in it without being able to do anything about it. It is helpful if someone recognizes this and can stop the automatic movements so that they are not practiced further outside the learning phase. The brain learns everything and creates pathways for the disturbing things, and these pathways are only hindrances to our progress. If one manages to interrupt the disturbing motor and sensory behaviors, the brain has the opportunity to learn other patterns that ensure our well-being.

During the day, residual reactions are compensated for by movement. At night, this compensation strategy disappears, and the muscle tension automatically becomes visible, which one tried laboriously to control during the day. Physiologically, this has the following reason: Our muscles contain white and red muscle fibers. The white muscle fibers are responsible for the normal tonus (basic tension), which varies individually. The basic tension corresponds to the holding tension or isometric tension. The red muscle fibers are responsible for movement, which is called isotonic muscle tension. During the day, the red and white muscle fibers alternate; in movement, the red muscle fibers are more active, while in rest, the white ones are more active.

At night, only the white muscle fibers are active, making the underlying overlaid reflexes visible as compensation is lost. This leads to unconscious muscle tension, manifesting as teeth grinding or a peculiar twisted sleeping position. One lies on the back with the head dropped into the neck or sleeps in a bow-shaped position. Or lying on the stomach with legs and arms pulled in. These are the positions of the tonic labyrinth reflex backward and forward. If a child or adult sleeps in the embryonic position, it is the posture of the Moro reflex. This sleeping position can often be observed in people with depression.

Sometimes it can be observed that the hands are clenched into fists, and the white of the knuckles is visible. The grasping reflex is then so strong that not even an attempt to gently open the fist succeeds. If one manages to relax the hand, the sleeper will immediately resume this position as only the white muscle fibers are active and the reflex cannot be compensated.

Since there is no relaxation at night due to involuntary muscle tension, one wakes up exhausted in the morning, has a headache, or is simply in a bad mood without knowing why. There are many people who suffer from these symptoms repeatedly. If they consciously scan their body, they notice where latent tensions are sitting but cannot get rid of them, even if they have initially released them by paying attention. As soon as attention is elsewhere, muscle tension returns and the compensation mechanisms take effect. This constant tension is extremely energy-consuming, and one is constantly busy realigning the body, causing a loss of attention for other things.

The tonus disorder slowly decreases through the BalanceHIRO® exercises I show my clients.

More interesting knowledge…

… about early childhood reflexes, as well as concrete exercises for subsequent integration and centering can be found in my course BalanceHIRO®.

Reading Sample: Powerful! Reflexes Shape Life by Bärbel Hölscher

Physiological background

The tonus development (muscle tension) of an infant follows a physiological sequence. The postural maturation (body alignment) proceeds according to a fixed intrinsic program, just as it does in cell division after the fertilization of an egg. The body alignment progresses from top to bottom, from the head to the feet. In the first weeks, only mass movements are observed in the infant, as the myelin sheath formation (myelination) of the nerve strands necessary for voluntary movements is not yet present. Myelination provides the nerve strands with an insulating layer, which is partly responsible for transmitting a nerve impulse. As long as this insulating layer has not sufficiently formed over the movements, mass movements occur. The baby moves its body involuntarily. When it is happy, it kicks with its arms and legs simultaneously, without being able to initiate a specific movement direction. It is striking that the infant can lift its head from the prone position immediately after birth, independent of the rest of the body. This is the beginning of free head control, which must be trained to achieve complete free head control by the end of the first year of life. This then allows the head to move independently of the rest of the body. However, this also means that there have been no disturbances in the physiological development of the child during the first year of life. If the pediatrician determines that head control is not age-appropriate, a disturbance in the natural course can be assumed. A disturbance of this development is characterized by a persistence of tonic patterns, consisting of vestibular reflexes such as the Asymmetric (ATNR) and Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR), or the Tonic Labyrinth Reflex (TLR) or proprioceptive reflexes such as the Fear-Paralysis Reflex (FLR) or grasping reflexes. This automatically leads to a disturbance of tonus. The concept of central tonus and/or coordination disorder was coined by Dr. Vojta1, who, as an orthopedic specialist, noticed tonus disorders in infants that were based on the persistence of tonic patterns. This is associated with a disturbance in the maturation of the Central Nervous System (CNS). Tonus disorders impede the orderly physiological development of the child in the first year of life, resulting in motor deficits and, consequently, various perceptual disorders. The unconscious motor residual reactions prevent a natural body posture, which means that movements cannot be executed cleanly in their complexity, and the body slowly deforms from the beginning of life. This leads to malpositions in the bone structure, and the joints are thereby heavily stressed. People with still very active early childhood reflexes are often unable to perform the movement sequences required by sports teachers, physiotherapists, or Qi Gong teachers because they lack an inner kinesthetic conception of this movement sequence. The motor residual reactions constantly intervene. In order to prevent disturbed development, Vojta has developed seven positional reactions that can reliably inform the pediatrician whether a central coordination disorder is present. Doman and Delacato already discovered in 1963 “the obviously indispensable necessity of certain physical activities as a prerequisite for the proper functioning of the neural apparatus involved in intellectual processes (…)”.2 One of the most important of these physical activities is crawling in cross-walking to develop cooperation between the brain hemispheres, which forms the basis for a complete sensorimotor organization.3 This locomotion is disturbed by the persistence of tonic patterns. Vojta already said that the immaturity of the CNS must be treated immediately, working through physical perception. If the child receives the right sensory input, physiological motor development will follow. This prevents and counteracts behavioral abnormalities in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. If the immaturity of the CNS is not recognized in the first year of life, the tonus disorder is further solidified by the child’s movements, so that the early childhood reflexes do not have the chance to lose their effectiveness in their involuntary form. If the tonic patterns persist, they deform the body in the same way that constantly flowing water deforms a stone. The behavioral abnormalities that will inevitably appear later on are very individually different in their expression, i.e., deformation, but have a limiting influence on the person throughout their life. The person will never be able to live up to their full potential. The task of the exercises is to interrupt and eliminate the effect of the tonic patterns. This is achieved by training the child’s perception in postures that are free of tonic patterns. Tonus disorders are always independent of intelligence! However, the more intelligent a person with tonus disorders is, the more cognitive possibilities for compensation are available to them. The tensions that are perceptible in the body for the person affected by a tonus disorder prevent them from developing a healthy perception without being aware of it. For they lack reference values as to how it could be different. In stressful situations, decisions and actions are often not appropriate. Since interpersonal experiences are guided by one’s own perception, it is absolutely necessary to respect the motor development stages that are bound to time. If these cannot be accomplished on their own, the child must be supported accordingly so that they acquire a healthy perception. The neurophysiological order is observed when applying the exercises I present and can be applied at any age. An already solidified tonus disorder can be changed towards normalization at any age, although, of course, the best results are achieved with therapy applied in childhood. Once the client has learned the exercises and integrated them into their life, as they do with other beneficial rituals, they have the chance not to let innate weaknesses of their organism manifest, which would then be expressed in diseases that their ancestors already had. However, it is not the disease that is inherited, but the predisposition to it. The predisposition to coordination disorders is inherited, but the manifestation of behavioral abnormalities is decisively influenced by the daily sensorimotor and psychological experiences of a person, which in turn is individually very different. Dr. Svetlana Masgutova, who has been dealing with the consequences of non-integration of early childhood reflexes for 20 years, says: “Any therapy that targets non-integrated (i.e., ineffective; note by translator) reflexes promotes compensation.”4 The innate motor control mechanisms of reflexes, i.e., involuntary motor reactions, cannot become ineffective in the case of non-integration; they can only be used more or less. In order to get out of these reflex patterns, it is necessary to allow the body to have perceptive experiences in which no hypertonic tensions are perceptible. This is only possible if body postures are adopted in which as few tonic patterns as possible are present. This also gives the brain other information that is physiological and free from a global tonus disorder. Once the brain has had this experience, it will want to have it again and again, because a tension-free position of the body, which extends not only to the musculature but also to all tissues such as vessels, internal organs, tendons, and ligaments, makes the person feel more inwardly clear. They finally get reference values for how it can feel different and what relief this state brings. Therefore, these “exercises” are not exercises in the physiotherapeutic sense, but sensory ones that capture the whole person, both physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually. If the exercises are also combined with neuroenergetic kinesiology, the results of applying two otherwise independent excellent methods, which both have the same goal, namely to actually bring people into self-determined action, can be potentiated.

1 Cf. Vojta

2 See Delacato, Carl H., The Diagnosis And Treatment Of Speech And Reading Problems. Springfield, Illinois (USA) 1963

3 Cf. Hess, Eckhard H., Prägung. The Early Childhood Development of Behavioral Patterns in Animals and Humans. Munich 1975

4 This quote comes from Dr. Masgutova’s remarks during the seminar I attended in 2008.