Most of us are familiar with the “kneejerk” reaction that comes when a doctor taps our kneecap with a rubber hammer, but do you know what happens when you gently turn a baby’s head to one side? What about when you stroke a baby’s spine with your fingers?
Infants possess several unique reflexes that adults do not have. Because these are initially present at birth and disappear within the first few months, some scientists have speculated that they indicate some kind of evolutionary progression. For example, on page 534 of Pediatric Chiropractic, we find the statement, “…the disappearance of these movement patters demonstrate that higher cerebral pathways have established dominance over the primitive reflexes as the nervous system matures.” The overlying use of the word primitive brings to mind evolutionary stages and changes.
Are infant reflexes left over from evolutionary processes that fade away as the infant evolves into a higher being? No! It can be shown that these reflexes are designed to assist in the birth process and diminish as they are no longer needed.
Dr. Carol J. Phillips teaches that the following reflexes are specifically designed to help the baby maneuver through the birth canal:
Placing and Stepping Reflexes: (Present from birth to 6-8 weeks). The baby steps up and “walks” when held upright over a flat surface with the feet just touching. This reflex helps the baby “push off” against the top of the uterus to increase the head’s pressure on the cervix, which stimulates the start of labor and contractions. As labor continues, the placing and stepping reflexes assist the baby in descending into the birth canal.
Asymmetric Tonic Neck Reflex/Fencer Reflex: (Present from birth to 2-6 months). When the baby’s head is gently turned to one side, the baby straightens the arm and leg on the side the head is turned toward, and the opposite arm and leg remain bent. The Fencer Reflex assists in positioning the baby during labor. The baby’s head enters the pelvis facing to the side. As the mother’s pelvic muscles turn the head 90° to face toward her back, the turned head will cause that shoulder to rise. This narrows the shoulder width so the baby can continue to descend through the birth canal.
As the baby prepares to enter the birth canal, cranial molding decreases the amniotic fluid in the cranial cavity forcing it into the spinal canal. The walls of the birth canal perform something similar to a Heimlich maneuver to force the fluid from the baby’s lungs and decrease the volume and circumference of the chest cavity. This systematic decrease in fluid volume leads to the next reflex, which empties the abdominal cavity.
Perez Reflex: (Present from birth to 24 months). Stroke gently up the baby’s spine, and the baby’s back and head arch backward, knees bend up toward the chest, and urination occurs.
As the baby descends in the birth canal and continues to rotate into position, the uterine contractions on the spine initiate the Perez reflex which causes the head and back to arch backward. This also moves the head out from underneath the pubic bone as crowning occurs. Urination empties the bladder of amniotic fluid and decreases the abdominal volume, and thus circumference, before passing through the birth canal.
Galant Reflex: (Present from birth to 8 weeks). Stroke downward, from shoulder to hip, on one side of the baby’s spine, and the baby’s hip bends up on that side.
Once the shoulders are through the pelvic outlet, the hips have to come through. The contractions of the mother’s muscles stimulate the back muscles on the baby, and the Galant Reflex causes one hip to go up, and the other to drop. This assists the hips in exiting the birth canal.
As these reflexes demonstrate, we are learning more of how God has designed our world and, more specifically, the birth process. Ecclesiastes 11:5 reminds us that as we “do not know…how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so (we) do not know the works of God who makes everything.” Psalm 22:9-10 states that He is the God “who took me out of the womb.”
So, rather than witnessing a repeat of some primitive evolutionary progression, we see mother and baby in an intricate dance where the baby is stimulated by the mother’s muscles at just the right time to move into the next position enabling a successful birth. Truly we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Lord, who carefully designed and engineered our entry into His world.
Originally published in the September/October 2006 Think and Believe newsletter.