The Effect of Retained Sucking Reflex on Speech and Feeding

by Nour Emad, KSA

What are primitive reflexes

Newborn babies are born with a group of  important reflexes known as primitive or neonatal reflexes, they  are an important basis of Infant movement and  help them through their early stages of infanthood in the first weeks and months of life. These reflexes are involuntary movements that happens as responses to different stimulators .

Primitive reflexes emerge and gradually develop in the utero and then integrate (fade) gradually as the Central Nervous system matures and neural connections develop in higher levels in the brain, also as the child learns new skills and develop control of posture and movement. Most neonatal reflexes should be fully integrated by the time the child reaches one year old. The proper integration of primitive reflexes allows the child’s brain to acquire and learn new things, especially motor skills important to learning.

In some occasions, these primitive reflexes persist beyond the age where they should be integrated. In such case, they are called active or retained primitive reflexes. Different reflexes cause different symptoms when not properly integrated and they may interfere with a child’s learning, sensory processing, emotional maturity and development of more advanced skills.

Some reasons that may have an effect on reflexes’ integration are: exposure to toxins in the womb – smoking, drugs, extended periods of bed rest during pregnancy, stress from the birth process, premature birth, not enough floor or tummy time, etc.


The sucking reflex

 As mentioned previously, babies are born with neonatal reflexes, number of these reflexes such as the sucking reflex is vital to baby’s survival in the earliest weeks and months of life. The sucking reflex emerges and develops when a baby is still in-utero, it is fully present at birth and ideally stays active until the age of 4 months when the infant have developed more mature oral motor movement and no longer needs the reflex. We may even have the chance to see the sucking reflex activated and in action during a routine ultrasound as the baby is sucking his thumb or hand.

When the palate of a baby’s mouth or the top of the upper lip is touched with a nipple, either from the breast or the bottle, or even stroked with a finger, the sucking reflex is activated and the baby will automatically start sucking. The sucking reflex helps infants to feed and get enough nourishment so they can thrive and grow, also as the babies get older, the reflex helps them to grasp and bring things to mouth as an exploration and learning about size, texture and taste.

If the sucking reflex is not fully integrated and is retained past 4 months can lead to delays and challenges in speech and articulation, difficulty with chewing hard or solid food, non- nutritive sucking like clothes or thumb sucking, tongue thrust, overbite and the need of orthodontic work, repeated oral sensory stimulation, difficulty developing manual and fine motor skills, Dexterity problems when talking, and laying down a lot.

 A group of exercises can help  Integrating retained primitive reflexes and  help to reduce or eliminate the symptoms associated with them.