All parents of newborns have seen it. One minute your baby is sleeping blissfully and you're convinced she'll be down for hours. Then all of a sudden, her arms jerk, she wakes herself up, and you're back at square one trying to get her down again. This is what's called the Moro (or startle) reflex. It's a normal protective reflex that all babies are born with.
But what is the Moro reflex exactly? The Moro Reflex (often referred to as the startle reflex) is an involuntary response experienced by newborn babies. It's a normal occurrence parents will notice their babies doing from birth until 3-4 months or so. This reflex is often a response to an outside factor, but can also be triggered when a baby feels a free-falling type sensation. You'll know your baby is experiencing the Moro reflex if you see them suddenly flail out their arms or arch their back. They may also let out a gasp or breathe in a sharp inhale. They'll often calmly pull their arms back in again and go back to sleep, but more often they're up for good.
The Reasons Babies Experience the Moro Reflex
There are various reflexes that are all a natural part of infancy. The Moro (Startle) reflex is one of them. Just like animals have adaptations to protect themselves, babies, too, have this type of adaptation as a form of protection.
The Moro Reflex isn't usually random even if it may appear that way to you. When your baby goes through this, something has caused them to feel as if they are falling. The reason they throw out their arms is as to try to "catch" themselves - just as you would if you were falling.
These are factors that may trigger your newborn's Moro Reflex:
- bright lights
- outside noises
- a sudden or cold touch
- a quick movement by someone around them
- being placed down in a crib
Even if the changes in the environment are barely noticeable to you, they are strong for your baby's senses who isn't as adjusted to the outside world.
Parents may notice the Moro reflex happening often when they place their baby down on their back to go to sleep. You'll think they're completely asleep (and they probably are) and as soon as you lay them on their back, they startle themselves awake and start crying. This can be a scary feeling for a baby, so it's not surprising that it completely wakes them up.
Why does the Moro Reflex happen?
Even though you are gently laying your baby down, the descent may give them the sensation that they are free-falling with nothing to catch them. Sounds scary, right? Their body responds in a protective manner which we see as being startled.
Luckily, there are a few main ways that you can help ease the Moro reflex for your little one.
Ways to Help your Baby Avoid the Startle Reflex
Nothing that you do can completely eliminate the Moro reflex. It is an innate response that your baby will eventually grow out of. Until they do, here are the best ways to help your baby to not get startled so easily and hopefully help them (and all of you) sleep better:
- Reduce outside triggers. Try to keep lights dim or at an even intensity. If there is outside noise that can't be avoided (such as traffic) consider using a white noise machine to drown it out. If you have to move around your baby while they sleep, do it as calmly as possible.
- Hold your baby close to your body as you lower them down into their crib. The more that your baby feels protected, the less likely they will startle. Lay them down as gently as possible. Once you've laid your baby down in their crib, keep your hands placed on their body for a few moments. Take your hands away one at a time and slowly. This will allow them to settle in and avoid feeling the free-falling sensation.
- Swaddle your baby. This is one of the top reasons why newborn babies should be swaddled. Not only is it recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics as an effective technique for calm and safe sleep, but it also helps infants to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. One reason is its ability to counteract the Moro reflex. By keeping your baby's arms tucked in tight against their body, they won't be able to jerk their arms out which ultimately scares them and wakes them up. Not only that, but the womb-like environment that's created from the swaddle will help keep them from feeling the falling sensation that often triggers the Moro reflex in the first place.
You might be thinking the first two sound pretty simple to do, whereas perfecting that swaddle technique is an art form you just can't seem to master. That's where the Dreamland Baby Swaddle Sleep Sack comes in. It offers a fool-proof swaddle that wraps tightly around your baby's arms and chest. It also has an additional feature that will help fend off any startling your baby might experience. This swaddle is special because it's weighted. Remember we mentioned how comforting hands on a baby can keep them from startling? The weight provided by the sleep sack mimics this feeling.
When will my baby grow out of the Moro (Startle) Reflex?
The Moro reflex is just one of the many reasons your baby might not be able to sleep well. The suggestions provided, especially the swaddle sleep sack, will help a lot. The other good thing is that this natural response won't be around forever. Over time, you'll see the jerky movements become less and less pronounced. Between 3-6 months of age (remember that all babies are different!) you will no longer see your baby experiencing this reflex.
Although your baby's Moro reflex will eventually go away, you'll want to continue the calming habits you've put into place such as white noise, careful placement in their crib, and swaddling (or sleep sack if they've learned to roll). They'll be used to these routines by now, and continuing them will help to ensure that your baby continues to sleep comfortably and soundly.