Tonic Neck Reflex/Fencing Reflex

The Fencing Reflex: Newborn Reflex Questions Answered

Reflexes, or involuntary movements and responses to stimulus, are something that every human has. For adults, we think of things like when the doctor taps underneath our knee and our leg jolts out. There are certain reflexes that are unique to babies, and especially to newborns. One of the most frequently questioned reflexes in babies is the tonic neck reflex, which is also called the baby fencing reflex. Read more as we answer why this reflex is called the fencing reflex and what other fascinating reflexes you can expect from a newborn baby.

What is the fencing/tonic neck reflex in infants?

The tonic reflex is also referred to as the fencing reflex because of the motion a baby makes. With their head turned to the side, one elbow bent, and the other arm straight out pointing the direction their head turned, it truly looks like the baby is ready to begin a match of fencing.

What causes the fencing response?

You may be wondering what causes the fencing response for little ones. The tonic neck reflex actually develops before the baby is even born at about 18 weeks from conception. It is said that this fencing position helps the baby in their journey through the birth canal.

Why do babies do the fencing pose?

After birth, the baby fencing reflex can have a few different explanations. The first is that the reflex is helping the baby develop hand eye coordination. Another rationale for the fencing reflex is to prevent a baby from being able to roll from their back to their tummy before they are developmentally safe to do so. The disappearance of this reflex aligns with the developmental age in which babies typically roll from their back to their tummy.

Why is tonic neck reflex important?

The tonic neck reflex is an important part of a baby’s neurological development. With any common baby reflexes, absences or prolonged durations of stimulus response can be signs of neurological development concern. While not to stress, it is always best to contact your Pediatrician with any concerns.

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How do you test for tonic neck reflex?

You can test for the tonic reflex in infants by laying your baby on their back and turning their head to either side. Whichever side you turn their head to, the arm on that side will raise and the other arm will be bent at the elbow. Sometimes your baby’s tonic reflex can be subtle, and keep in mind that certain reflexes will come and go throughout a baby’s developmental stages.

When should the tonic neck reflex disappear?

The tonic reflex lasts in babies until they are somewhere between 5 to 7 months old. One rationale mentioned for the tonic neck reflex is for preventing babies from being able to roller over onto their stomach before their body and brain are developmentally ready. The fencing reflex is intended as a safety mechanism for your little one.

Is fencing response posturing?

The fencing response is a reflex that typically goes away at 5-7 months. While the positioning of the arms can be referred to as the ‘fencing posture…? 

What happens if tonic neck reflex is absent?

If the tonic reflex is not something you have seen with your little one, it is always best to check with your pediatrician to see if it is cause for concern or not. While absences or prolonged persistence of certain reflexes can be signs of developmental or neurological problems, there can also be many varying explanations. Sometimes parents can miss the fencing posture if it is subtle. Other times, a baby may not have this response with head movement if they are distracted or already crying. Checking with a pediatrician will help you understand the rationale for absent reflexes for infants.

What are other primitive reflexes in newborns?

Now that we have discussed the fascinating tonic neck/fencing reflex, you may be wondering what other types of primitive reflexes babies have and why. Here are some of the commonly questioned baby reflexes and why newborns come into the world with these involuntary movements or responses:

Rooting and Sucking Reflexes:

Both the rooting and sucking reflex are all part of how newborns come into the world with the ability to feed. Rooting is the opening of the mouth that occurs when the baby’s corner of their mouth is touched. The mouth opens in response to that stimulus in order for the baby to find either the breast or bottle that is intended to feed them. Sucking is the reflex that comes when the roof of their mouth is touched.

Grasping Reflex:

Have you ever touched a baby’s palm and they instantly wrap their tiny hand around your finger? While incredibly cute, this sweet moment is involuntary and called the grasping reflex. This grasp reflex typically lasts until about 5 to 6 months. After that, we only hope they wrap their tiny hands around our fingers by choice!

Moro Reflex:

If you’ve ever seen that sad moment when a newborn is startled, you may have noticed that their head, arms, and legs extend and then pull right back in. This startled motion is called the moro reflex and is typically in response by loud sounds or sudden movements. This reflex movement typically lasts until the baby is about 2 months old. After this, response to loud noises surely can exist, but it will typically involve a much more controlled response.

Conclusion

Reflexes in babies exist for various reasons, and can be a telling sign of a baby’s neurological development. Because of this, Pediatricians will often test for certain reflexes. We’ve shared what the tonic neck reflex (or fencing reflex) is, amongst others you can expect from newborn babies. If you are concerned about any absence of reflexes, it’s always best to check with your Pediatrician to see if there are any underlying causes. Oftentimes there are many reasons to explain reflexes and absences of these responses.

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