Understand the Different Types of Newborn Reflexes

Baby grabbing parent's finger with plantar reflex
Birdland / Getty Images

The reflexes or automatic actions newborns exhibit put the awesome power of human instinct and evolution on full display. From rooting to grasping, babies are programmed to respond to certain stimuli in their environments with specific, involuntary reactions. For example, stroke a newborn's cheek and they'll automatically open their mouth and turn their head toward the side that was touched. Stroke the roof of their mouth and they'll begin sucking.

While these reflexes may simply seem adorable, they have a much larger purpose. They've been imprinted onto our DNA because they help babies survive—and link us all to our human ancestry. In the past, having these reflexes or not might have meant the difference between surviving beyond infancy or not.

Normal Newborn Reflexes

Infant reflexes help your newborn transition to life outside the womb and learn what they need to do to survive. If your little one has not displayed the rooting reflex or any of the other involuntary motions below, call your pediatrician.

Rooting or Root Reflex

The rooting reflex is one of the most well-known of the numerous involuntary movements and actions that are normal for newborns. This one helps your baby find the breast or bottle to begin feeding. As described above, when a newborn's cheek is stroked, they will turn toward the touch. This automatic response typically goes away by 4 months.

Moro or Startle Reflex

The Moro or startle reflex causes your baby to extend their arms, legs, and fingers and arch when startled by the feeling of falling, a loud noise, or ​other environmental stimuli. Babies will typically exhibit a "startled" look. Pediatricians will typically check for this response right after birth and at the first baby check-ups. The reflex typically disappears between the ages of 2 to 4 months.

Sucking Reflex

The sucking reflex is a key newborn reflex, especially when paired with the rooting reflex, as it enables babies to eat instinctively. If you touch the roof of your baby’s mouth with your finger, a pacifier, or a nipple, they will automatically begin sucking. Around 2 to 3 months of age, your baby’s sucking instinct will transition to a conscious effort and is no longer considered a reflex.

Stepping Reflex

The stepping reflex allows your baby to put one foot in front of the other when you place their feet on a flat surface. This isn't really walking and will disappear around 4 months of age. If you try out this one at home, be sure to support your baby's weight by holding them under the arms (while also supporting the head) as your baby is not yet strong enough to actually hold up their body in a standing position. This reflex will return in a conscious form near age one as your baby learns to walk for real.

Palmar Grasp

The palmar grasp makes babies grab onto things, allowing your baby to "hold" your hand—or, most likely, your finger. When you touch the palm of your baby's hand, their fingers will curl around and cling to your finger. If you try to remove your finger from their grasp, the grip will tighten. This reflex, which disappears around 5 to 6 months of age, helps babies develop the skill of intentionally grabbing on to things.

Tonic Neck or Fencing Reflex

The tonic neck or fencing reflex happens when you place your baby on their back and move their head to one side. The baby will assume the "fencing position," extending the arm and leg on the side they're facing. Their other arm and leg will be flexed, with that hand in a fist. This reflex is present until about 6 months of age.

Normal Life-Long Reflexes

Newborns are also equipped with many reflexes that will last into adulthood. Some of the more common of these automatic responses that we all share include the following:

  • Blinking reflex: Closing eyes in response to touch or a sudden, bright light
  • Gag reflex: Gagging in response to the back of the mouth or throat being touched
  • Cough reflex: Coughing in response to airway stimulation
  • Sneeze reflex: Sneezing in response to nasal airway irritation
  • Yawn reflex: Yawning in response to the body's need for more oxygen (or tiredness)
  • Orienting reflex: Also known as the "what-is-it?" reflex, draws attention to a new stimuli
  • Knee-jerk reflex: Also called the patellar reflex, a sudden kick in response to a tap on the patellar tendon (located just below the knee)

A Word From Verywell

As your child matures and grows, they will develop new skills, independence, and self-direction, eliminating the need for these newborn reflexes, most of which disappear in the first weeks or months of life. Your pediatrician will be testing for these reflexes (and that they disappear on schedule) at your baby's check-ups. In rare cases, an infant does not outgrow the rooting reflex or other involuntary responses, which could signal brain or nervous system issues.

Be sure to discuss any concerns you might have about your baby's reflexes with your doctor. Just know that, like with many things relating to childhood development, the exact comings and goings of specific reflexes can be fluid between individual babies and don't necessarily indicate a problem unless they're way off the expected timetable.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Infant Reflexes. U.S. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus.

Additional Reading
  • Newborn Reflexes. American Academy of Pediatrics.

  • Newborn Reflexes and Behavior. American Academy of Pediatrics.

  • DeGangi G. Pediatric Disorders Of Regulation In Affect and Behavior. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Elsevier Inc.; 2017:chapter 4.1.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.