When you think of reflexes, what comes to mind? You might imagine a doctor checking reflexes by hitting your knee, causing your leg to jump up. You’re not in conscious control of that action, it’s reflexive. The same is true of blinking, or jumping when startled by a loud noise – they’re all examples of reflexes.
A primitive reflex is a reflex that develops in utero. They serve an important developmental purpose, but when that is complete, they should integrate – or in other words, go to sleep – in order to make room for other higher level reflexes.
Toe walking and poor balance are often the effects of a retained primitive reflex, which can cause discomfort or even pain whenever that child’s feet touch the ground. Primitive reflexes are completely natural to a child’s growth up to a certain point in their development, and because everyone is born with them, it becomes difficult to determine when a child retains one that should’ve already “deactivated.” It is also hard to tell some different reflexes apart.
Often, primitive reflexes are overlapping and intertwined, especially in the first year of life. One example of this is the relationship between the Plantar and Babinski reflexes, which are thought of as sister reflexes. They are responsible for exercising of the baby’s feet and creating neural development in the brain. Both are present at birth and respond to pressure and stimulus on the foot, though they are responsible for different things. Still, retaining either or both may very well be the reason behind your child’s toe walking, clumsiness, and/or lack of balance or coordination.
The Plantar Reflex
The Plantar reflex is seen when the foot flexes or curls when we stroke or press on the ball of baby’s foot. It emerges around 11 weeks in the womb, is present at birth, and goes dormant at around one year of age. To test for a retained Plantar reflex, grab a pen or marker and pretend to draw a line on the sole of your child’s foot from toes to heel – if their toes scrunch up, this could mean a retained Plantar reflex.
The Babinski Reflex
Similarly, the Babinski reflex is also present at birth and starts to fade around a child’s first birthday. It is seen when you stroke the outside sole your baby’s sole from heel to toes by making an upside-down “L” shape up their foot and then across their toes – their big toe will overextend upward while the other toes fan outward. This reflex assists babies to crawl but, interestingly enough, it also helps determine the adequacy of the central nervous system and, by extension, the sensory, vestibular, proprioceptive and visual systems. Therefore, a retained Babinski reflex may be the reason your child struggles with these systems, showing signs of poor balance, coordination, tracking, hand-eye coordination, sensory sensitivities, and even issues in the classroom.
How do the Plantar and Babinski Reflexes relate to balance?
These primitive reflexes are incredibly important to an infant’s development, but we do not want them to linger into older childhood years. Having a retained Plantar or Babinski reflex can affect walking and balance, and many other ways in which a child interacts with their environment. There is a nerve path that connects our feet all the way up to our brain and, if these reflexes continue into older childhood, the daily pressures of movement can create discomfort or pain to the point of altering foot positioning and placement, as well as balance and coordination issues.
If your child has retained one of these reflexes, a few signs to look out for include toe walking, issues with the proprioceptive, vestibular, visual and/or sensory systems, altered gait, trouble balancing and/or gravitational insecurity (they’re unsure of their stability). This may sound broad, but that is only because infancy and early childhood reflexes are so closely related to a child’s overall development.
If you have any related concerns, please talk to your therapist or give us a call. We’re always happy to help!