Clinging is a developmental process. Although it isn’t currently recognised as such, the anecdotal evidence strongly backs this theory up.
Newborn babies are born with primitive neonatal reflexes, some of which previously enabled them to explore the place they grew up in before birth – the womb. For example, grasping was practiced in one way by grasping the umbilical cord, and swallowing triggered by ingesting amniotic fluid. Others were activated during the birthing process (including the spinal galant reflex, responsible for enabling them to navigate the birth canal) and yet more after entering the big wide world, for example breathing and rooting. Some of these reflexes (e.g. breathing and blinking) will last their entire life as long as certain neurological damage is not sustained. Others, such as the Moro and Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex, are designed to be integrated (used enough so they gradually disappear when certain physical milestones are achieved) and replaced by voluntary actions.
Babies are born with many reflexes which assist the carrying process long before they are in full control of their physical bodies. These reflexes also assist in other physical developmental processes so – even though it comes as a bit of a shock that we are still able to cling to our caregivers, long after active carrying was regularly practiced – they are still about and can be utilised when we practice in-arms carrying.
Some of the carrying reflexes are:
- Grasping (palmar reflex) This is one of a few overlooked reflexes. Thought to be vestigial, from when we clung to fur, this reflex is still very much integral to our development. We now grab to clothing and skin instead of hair, and still utilise this reflex so much in this “furless” day and age. It also helps the arm position itself in time and space. It’s responsible for the sometimes-annoying reflexive grabbing onto our hair. That vice-like grip can be hard to get out of, but there’s a counter-action you can try to trigger their release. Seen in the following video, it requires you to stroke the outer side of their hand, up to their little finger, which should produce a fanning of the fingers and enable them to let go of their grip.Off-body, it enables them to grasp objects, such as toys or small items we give them to explore, and as it integrates we start seeing more considered, fluid and purposeful actions with the hands as they start learning the voluntary action.
- Moro reflex
This one is usually tested off-body and in the extreme. This method of testing produces the exaggerated response of extension of body and limbs, frozen body, fear, crying/screaming and increased cortisol and heartrate, followed by a flexion of the body and limbs. It’s no wonder this reflex gets a bad name and is widely referred to as one to avoid triggering! In fact, it can be seen working in its (presumably) normal range when observed in-arms. In-arms we tend to see a much milder response. This reflex is a vestibular one, meaning it’s linked to the baby’s sense of balance and when the equilibrium is disturbed, vestibular reflexes are activated. In the normal sense, the reflex is gently stimulated, triggering the flexion part rather than the extension and following stressor responses. Sometimes it may be stimulated more strongly and trigger an extensor response, but not as extreme as to also coax a stressor reaction. Flexor occurs alone. Extensor and flexor occurs in another situation. Flexor, stressor and flexion occur in another instance.When enough disturbance happens to trigger the extensor reaction first, it actually protects the body in a way we may not realise when we think of this as a survival reflex. In our minds we may think that a clinging reflex would be what we need for them to keep themselves safe. However, this reflex doesn’t make them a straight, hard to hold infant. No, the extensor response enables a reflexive tightening and stabilising of muscles, potentially protecting them from sudden movements (either backwards or suddenly correcting to flexion in the speed of the moment) to keep their head from flopping/whiplashing in non-extreme movement. When on-body they also benefit from the plantar (foot) responses which can counteract the limb extension by triggering squatting and clinging responses.
- Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR) This is another incredible reflex, which is split into two – TLR(flexion) and TLR(extension). TLR(f) occurs when the head goes forward of the midline of the body. TLR(e) occurs when the head tips behind the midline. On the midline, a fairly straight spine is exhibited with possible differences in situations such as when a baby is on their back but they adopt the squat reflex. This ties into other reflexes inhibiting the full response of others. On-body, TLR(e) tends t be inhibited to a lesser or greater extent. When loose foot contact is established a lesser or slower response tends to be observed. When more firm contact is achieved, quicker and/or stronger responses are observed.
- Plantar reflexes When we talk about the plantar reflexes we’re referring to the plantar grasp and Babinski’s sign. Both are frequently reported to be present to around 12 months of age, sometimes to 2 years and even more rarely, 3. A big function of these 2 responses is the stabilising action they produce, on- and off-body. Instead of looking at numbers, look to your child. Plantar reflexes play a huge part in keeping them stable when they begin walking independently. In the following video you will see the ways in which the feet and toes respond to stimulation off-body (to show you the explicit responses clearly).They also trigger a “chain reaction” of subsequent reflexive responses further up the body. For example, the plantar reflexes often trigger the “stepping reflex” and clinging reflexes of the legs.
- “Stepping” reflexThis reflex is perhaps the least understood in the scientific world. It supposedly simulates walking, but defies one of the “rules” of primitive reflexes. That a reflex is there as an immediate precursor to the learned, voluntary action. When we look at it on-body, though, it makes so much sense!
This is a “carrying adjustment reflex”, enabling them to reflexively correct their position as their foot and/or leg slides down the caregiver’s body.
These reflexes, and others, enable the infant to help with the carrying process in the early weeks and months through positional and postural reactions. Working with these reflexes helps you as a caregiver to identify ways to vary how you support them to enable them to engage in carrying in a way which is suitable for their current stage of development.