Babies are, by most accounts, cute and cuddly creatures that seem simple to please: feed, clothe and shelter them, allow them sleep and that’s all there is to it. Not so! Even as newborns, babies are very complex and finely tuned individuals who, thanks to nature, come with their own set of gadgetry and no real instruction manual to speak of.
One of the more interesting observations in a newborn is the way they seem to be scared of falling for no apparent reason. It seems there is no justification for a baby to have such a fear, especially considering that they’ve likely not experienced falling in the first place. But Mother Nature equips human beings with an amazing set of reflexes designed to protect us from all manner of possibilities.
This odd fear of falling is known as the Moro reflex (also known as the ‘startle reflex’). It is present in newborns but usually disappears within a few months. At birth, the pediatrician will test the baby for this reflex by laying her down on her back and removing contact with her. She is expected to throw her arms and legs out and extend her head in fear. Sometimes the doctor will also test the baby with a sudden loud noise, which should result in a similar reaction. Watching a baby experience the Moro reflex is almost comical, as you have to wonder what could be so alarming that she would feel like she’s falling, and appear to grab on to thin air for dear life. In actual fact, the baby is experiencing a kind of sensation that she is all alone in the world for a split second, and her reaction (instantaneously grabbing for something to hold on to) is a protective mechanism, akin to the ‘fight or flight’ response.
The Moro reflex actually begins to function approximately nine to twelve weeks after conception and is normally fully developed at birth. It is also known as the baby’s alarm reflex.
What sets it off?
The reflex is set off by excessive information applied to any of the baby’s senses. For instance, a bright light, loud noise, sudden touch, or unexpected stimulation of the balance mechanism such as dropping or tilting, activates the Moro reflex. Think of it as a newborn version of an adrenalin rush, similar to what an adolescent or adult experiences upon the anticipation of a sudden drop on a roller coaster ride. Your body must prepare itself for all eventualities, and the fact that this is an automatic response, is a true marvel of nature.
Does it wear off?
As the baby develops, the Moro reflex wanes and is naturally and gradually replaced by decision making processes.
Watching a baby’s Moro reflex in action can sometimes incite mild alarm in parents too. It’s very difficult to see your child appear to be anguished, but in this case, it should reassure that your baby is normal and quite prepared for the fight of life ahead.