What Is the Rooting Reflex?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 11, 2023
4 min read

When babies are born, everything they experience is new. They go from being safe and warm in the womb to having all sorts of sights, sounds, smells, and feelings thrown at them. 

Because of the adjustment to this big world, newborns are born with some primitive reflexes that help them survive. One of those is the rooting reflex, or the reflex to move their face to find their mother’s nipple to nurse

If your baby feels any kind of flesh against their face, their instinct is to turn their face toward the touch and find a nipple. This helps your baby communicate that they are hungry and need to nurse. 

The sucking reflex goes hand-in-hand with the rooting reflex. Once a nipple — whether a breast or a bottle — touches the roof of their mouth, your baby will automatically begin to suck. They instinctively know that rooting will lead to a nipple and sucking means nutrition. 

It’s important to understand that while it begins as a reflex, eventually the rooting around your baby will develop into well-honed nursing skills. Eventually, they will make mental connections between these actions and the results. At that point, the reflexes will become conscious responses to nurse or take a bottle. 

The reflex lasts until your baby is four months old. As your baby gets better at nursing, it may seem like the rooting reflex goes away. Really, your baby is getting better at understanding nursing or taking a bottle. 

They know they don’t have to search or root around for the nipple since they will be fed regularly. They learn about hunger cues instead and don’t respond to every touch with the need to nurse. If offered a bottle or your breast, your baby may turn their head away if full.

The Four-Month Milestone. Four months is a major developmental milestone for your baby. It’s the time when they transition away from being a newborn and are instead considered an infant. As they become more aware of their surroundings, their brain has a lot more information to process. Your baby will leave behind their newborn patterns — including reflexes and sleep patterns — and the biology of their brain is changing.‌

Your baby will have additional cognitive development milestones as they slowly become more independent. They will be increasingly aware of everything going on and test how they can interact and respond, slowly letting go of their other reflexes as well.

Moro reflex. The Moro reflex is more frequently called the startle reflex. If your baby hears a loud sound or sees a sudden movement, they will throw back their head and spread their arms and legs in response. Your baby may even be surprised by the sound of their own cry. 

After such an intense reaction, your baby may cry and be fussy until they are comforted and realize that they aren’t in any danger. This reflex lasts for the first two months of life.

Tonic neck reflex. You may notice that if your baby turns to one side, they will simultaneously outstretch the hand and arm on the same side. Meanwhile, your baby will bend their other arm at the elbow. It often looks like a cute stretching routine. This reflex lasts until five to seven months old.

Grasp reflex. Newborn babies have an impressive grip. If you stroke your baby’s hand, they will instinctively close their fingers around you. It can be very endearing to think that your baby wants to hold on tight to you, but it is not a controlled reaction at this age. 

If you stroke their feet, they may also try to grasp you with their toes. The hand reflex lasts for five to seven months while the foot reflex lasts for seven to nine months.

Stepping reflex. If you hold your baby under their arms and place their feet against a surface, you’ll notice that they begin to “walk” by placing one foot in front of the other. If you try this, be careful to provide support to their head and remember that they can’t bear their weight, so don’t let go. 

This reflex lasts about two months and is excellent proof that even though your baby is born completely dependent on their parents and caregivers, they still have instincts to survive.

The rooting and sucking reflexes are important for your baby to nurse. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your baby’s rooting, sucking, or latching to make sure they are getting enough milk and nutrients.