The Moro Reflex

The Moro Reflex begins to function 9-12 weeks after conception and is normally fully developed at birth. It’s the baby’s alarm reflex.

Newborns are incapable of rational thought as their Neo-Cortex (the pink squiggly part of the brain) hasn’t fully developed yet – so, to ensure they’re protected – they have an inbuilt alarm reflex. This alarm reflex is triggered by excessive information to any of the baby’s senses.  Loud noise, bright light, sudden rough touch, or sudden dropping or tilting activates this reflex.  When the response to threat is identified, baby replies with a startle reaction, followed by the protective pose of the foetal position.  In other words, baby arches their head back, lifts their arms up and back, spreads their hands and takes in a gasp of air, then curls forwards, pulls their legs up, folds their arms across their chest, and breathes out (like a cry for help).

If the Moro Reflex persists beyond three to six months of age, it becomes an automatic, uncontrollable overreaction, strong enough to override the newly operating decision making centres in the brain.

This often manifests as oversensitivity (light, sound, touch or any stress) and this is when your child removes themselves from situations that most children would find exciting such as birthday parties, loud play, loud noises etc. They’re typically seen to have trouble socialising, accepting or giving affection, and may be uncomfortable with new or stimulating experiences.

Fight or flight responses prepare the body for fighting or running. It relies on a burst of adrenalin into the bloodstream to provoke the energy you need to immediately remove yourself from an alarming situation. The Moro Reflex stimulates this pattern of response, which may occur at inappropriate times and your child (or adult) may become aggressive, overreactive, highly excitable, or unable to turn off and relax. These responses are purely for survival (to fight or to run). 

This is often misdiagnosed as ADHD or seen as Bad Behaviour! But it’s actually a response to not feeling safe.

The Moro reflex may be triggered many times a day, putting a constant demand on the adrenal glands which can become fatigued (often called Adrenal Fatigue).  As these glands play an important role in immune system function, when the adrenals are fatigued, a person may experience chronic illnesses or allergies. This can exhibit in a child or adult as eczema, asthma, psoriasis, unexplained pain, chronic hay fever or as ‘always’ being sick.

When an inappropriate Moro Reflex begins to integrate after therapy, there may be changes in emotional state or behaviour.  Emotional ups and downs are common as the nervous system and hormonal system adjust.  This is a normal and very temporary phase of integration.  With a retained Moro, your child may never have fully experienced the discovery phase of development (sometimes known as the “terrible twos”) and, as the Moro integrates, the child (or teenager or adult) has the opportunity to pass through this important developmental phase.    

How are the Moro Reflex and Fight Flight Response Linked?

We find that if a child or adult still has the Moro Reflex present, there may be some distinct behavioural or learning obstacles to combat. If the Moro Reflex doesn’t inhibit, the individual has exaggerated reactions to sounds, temperature, touch, and visual and hearing input.  The Moro Reflex is much more heightened than the adult startle reflex, which is why a child may continue to have sensitivities in school or at home (even when they get older) because the Moro Reflex never left their body.  

One of the typical symptoms I see in a child that displays the Moro Reflex past the normal integration stage is being in constant fight or flight mode – which is also exhibited as Anxiety.

When kids are in fight or flight mode, they’re reacting and responding on instinct and in survival mode. Watch this video ‘The Field Guide to Your Brain and Anxiety’ to understand how the brain functions when the fight or flight response is at play.

In order to react with understanding, we must be aware of where this fight or flight response originates in our child.

If your child has retained the Moro Reflex, you may see some of the following behaviour:

  • Frequently in the “fight or flight” mode, always on edge, heightened state of awareness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Exaggerated startle reaction.
  • Motion sickness.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Poor impulse control.
  • Poor coordination (particularly in sports), which leads to sequencing and memory issues.
  • Easily distracted.
  • Significant mood swings.
  • Poor eye movement leading to processing problems.
  • Difficulty ignoring background noise.

As a parent with a child who is frequently in a heightened state of anxiety, it can be stressful, exhausting and concerning. You want to help your child calm down, but many times they won’t let you help them or you may not be sure which approach to take, which in turn can heighten your own anxiety.

How to Test for the Moro Reflex at Home

There are three ways you can test whether the Moro Reflex is still present in your child, and it’s how we determine if it could be the cause of your child’s balance and coordination issues, fight or flight mode, fidgeting or behaviour problems.  

At home test:

  • Stand behind your child, have them close their eyes and stand up straight with their hands touching their chest (elbows bent).
  • Tell your child to fall backward into your arms (catch them under the armpits).
  • If your child flails their arms outward as they fall backwards (instead of keeping them toward their chest) this is a sign they still have the Moro Reflex present.
  • While their eyes are closed you can also snap your fingers close to their ears. If the noise startles them and they flail their arms outward, this is another sign of a retained Moro Reflex.

So what now?

If you’ve tested your child for the Moro Reflex and you think they’ve retained it, then your child will most likely continue to show signs of fight or flight in the classroom, and in life.  

At Flourish Kinesiology, we can help your child to integrate this reflex so they can feel calm and no longer experience anxiety. Book in for an appointment here.