Preventing learning difficulties: Need To Know


Rosemary Murphy explains how retained primitive reflexes can affect the development of your child, and what you can do from birth to ensure they are suppressed in time for any learning difficulties to be minimised.

Children with learning difficulties, I am often asked by their parents how they can prevent their younger children from also developing similar difficulties. While it is true that learning difficulties do tend to run in families, this is only a predisposition, and much can be done in the early years to prevent full-blown difficulties from emerging. However, parents have start from the moment of birth.

The key lies in understanding how babies’ brains develop after birth. Human babies are all born ‘premature’ when compared to the young of other species. The human infant can do nothing for herself for a long period of time, and relies on a handful of primitive reflexes to ensure her survival.

primitive reflexes

The Rooting and Sucking reflexes ensure that the baby will feed. The Moro or Startle reflex is triggered when the baby’s head drops, or when he is startled in any way, and ensures that he can cry for help if in danger or distress. The Asymmetrical and Symmetrical Tonic Neck reflexes ensure that baby begins to move; first by rolling, and then by passing through all of the early childhood movement patterns, such as commando crawling on the tummy and crawling on all fours, until he is upright and walking at around 12 months of age. While these reflexes are essential for survival for a newborn, they should be mostly suppressed during the first 12 months of life.

how do they get suppressed?

They become suppressed by the repetitive movements the baby makes on the floor in her struggle to get mobile and upright. These reflexes are then suppressed because they are no longer needed. Postural reflexes then develop, which will remain for the rest of her life, to enable her to control her physical movements, to enable her to get up quickly from the floor, to maintain a good, upright posture and to be able to sit still for extended periods once she enters school.

If these primitive reflexes remain, they cause a myriad of issues which interfere with learning, such as poor concentration, inconsistent learning (there one day, gone the next), anxiety, distractibility, poor eye tracking, difficulty copying from the board, poor pencil grip, difficulty putting words onto paper, poor self-organisation, hyperactivity, clumsiness, a tendency towards tantrums and meltdowns, plus many others.

how can parents prevent these primitive reflexes from being retained?

Simply by ensuring that your baby has plenty of time on his stomach on the floor every day.

  • Tummy time is hugely important for brain development.
  • Don’t prop him up before he can lift himself.
  • Let your baby struggle to get upright.
  • Don’t hurry your baby into walking.

This struggle to become upright and walk will remove these primitive reflexes, and develop the pathways in the brain later needed for successful learning in school.

If your baby insists on getting up and walking very early (before 12 months), then get down on the floor with her and play lots of floor games during the following months, so that she has plenty of time doing cross-pattern crawling.

If your child is a bottom shuffler, and does not crawl on his hands and knees, take him as soon as you can to a paediatric or cranial sacral osteopath to have his hips checked. Sometimes, a baby’s hips can be misaligned during childbirth and remain out of place in the following months, so that crawling is not comfortable.

If these steps are taken, then you will have done all you can to ensure that your child matures her own neurology through her own natural movement, at the developmentally appropriate time, and you may well prevent many learning difficulties from developing.

Should learning difficulties emerge later on, removal of these reflexes can be achieved through developmental movement programmes. See the ‘B is for Balance’ article in the June/July issue for developmental activities you can do at home to help as well.

Rosemary Murphy has taught in public and private schools in New Zealand, the UK and the USA for 16 years. She is a Registered Extra Lesson™ Practitioner at the Developmental Learning Centre which provides assessment and learning therapies for children and adolescents with learning difficulties and behavioural disorders.


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