What Are Newborn Reflexes?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 12, 2021

When babies are born, they have natural reflexes that serve as protection and to help them thrive outside the womb. You may have noticed some funny behaviors in your newborn, and they are likely reflexes.

Understanding Newborn Reflexes

Your baby is born helpless and completely dependent on you for care. There are totally new sounds, sights, and feelings. You may notice that your baby wants to suck on their hands all the time or that they seem tense. Both of these are newborn reflexes and will occur until babies gain control over their reactions. 

Newborn reflexes are instinctive, meaning your baby cannot control their body’s responses. Common reflexes include: 

  • Sucking – Your baby may make smacking noises and hold their hand to their mouth to suck on. This helps your baby get nutrition from your breast or a bottle. 
  • Grasping – Try touching the palm of your baby’s hand with your finger. Chances are that their fingers will close tightly around your finger when you do.  
  • Startling – A sudden sound or movement may catch your baby off guard. You’ll notice that they tense up and throw out their arms and legs stiffly from their body. 

Impact of Newborn Reflexes on Your Baby’s Health

Each newborn reflex has a purpose. Remember that newborn reflexes will gradually disappear as your baby develops more mature motor skills and control. 

Sucking reflex. After being offered a breast or bottle enough times, the sucking reflex is replaced with purposeful action. If your baby isn’t hungry, they may turn their head away in refusal. 

Moro reflex. This reflex is also called the startle reflex. If your baby shifts positions suddenly or is startled by something, they will extend their limbs and then bring their arms together quickly. This reflex serves as a way for your baby to protect themselves from potential danger. You may not see much benefit to the reflex, but it is instinctive. It lasts for the first two months of life.

Tonic neck reflex. Occasionally you may see your baby turn their head to one side while extending the opposite arm. This reflex is another defensive tactic. It lasts until your baby is five to seven months old. It may look like your baby is stretching, so unless you pay attention, you may not notice this newborn reflex.

Grasp reflex. When your baby grasps your finger, your heart melts. While it is very endearing, it’s not a conscious response. Instead, it’s a protective instinct to hold on to something if placed in their hand. You may feel an impressive grip that seems to extend beyond their age-related abilities. This newborn reflex lasts until your baby is five to seven months old.

Stepping reflex. Your baby may not be able to walk yet, but that won’t stop them from trying! Hold your baby gently under the arms, and place their feet on the ground or on a flat surface. You’ll see their feet move up and down in a walking motion. It’s cute, but your baby isn’t doing it on purpose. 

Instinct tells your baby that this movement gets them where they want to go. Keep in mind that your baby cannot yet bear their weight, so don’t put too much downward pressure on their legs. This newborn reflex disappears when your baby is around two months old.

How Newborn Reflexes Help Your Baby

A brain break. Reactions are instinctive, meaning your baby has no control over these newborn reflexes. The purpose of these reflexes is to give your baby’s brain a break from controlling their movements. Their brain and body are growing at an exponential rate, which uses up all their energy. As your baby develops, these reflexes will be replaced with conscious, purposeful actions.

Survival. Your baby can’t think, “I’m hungry, and I need to suck to get milk for nourishment.” Reflexes like sucking help ensure survival. Any time something touches your baby’s face, they turn toward the object and start sucking. Without this reflex, your baby may not understand what it means when offered milk from a breast or bottle.

What to Watch for With Newborn Reflexes

Other health conditions may mimic newborn reflexes. One example of this is clenched fists. Sometimes your baby clenches their fists because of hunger. Clenched fists are also a sign of cerebral palsy. You can distinguish between the two by looking for additional signs of cerebral palsy, including:

  • Weak muscles
  • Poor muscle control
  • Slow reflexes
  • Stiff legs and arms

Cerebral palsy is a condition that impacts the part of the brain that controls motor function. Depending on the severity of the condition, your child’s ability for body movement, muscle control, posture, coordination, reflexes, and balance may be better or worse.

You should also pay attention if your baby’s newborn reflexes return. Newborn reflexes should gradually disappear with time as your baby matures and gains more bodily control. If you notice that your baby’s reactions look like newborn reflexes again, talk to your doctor because this may be a health concern.

Show Sources


Healthy Children: “Newborn Reflexes.”

Kid’s Health: “Looking at Your Newborn: What's Normal.”

Seattle Children’s: “Newborn Reflexes and Behavior.”

Stanford Children’s Health: “Cerebral Palsy in Children.”

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