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 to sleep again. This is what's called the Moro (startle) Reflex. It's a protective automatic reflex that all babies are born with, and it's completely normal!
Here we'll outline:
The Reasons Babies Experience the Moro Reflex
Ways to Reduce Startling From the Moro Reflex
Helping Calm Your Baby When They Experience the Moro ReflexWhen does the Moro (Startle) Reflex disappear?
So what is the Moro reflex exactly? The Moro Reflex, or you might hear someone refer to it as the startle reflex, is an involuntary response experienced by newborn babies. It's a normal occurrence that parents will notice their babies doing from birth until 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, cry out, or breathe in a sharp inhale.
It sometimes comes completely out of the blue with, what seems to you, no particular reason for it. Then as quick as it came, they'll sometimes just as quickly pull their arms back in again and calmly go back to sleep. Unfortunately, more often than not they're startled awake and you'll need to try and get them back down to sleep.
The Reasons Babies Experience the Moro Reflex
There are various reflexes that are all a natural part of infancy - ones that your child's healthcare provider will screen for. 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. In fact, it shows up as soon as 28 weeks gestation!
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 if to try to "catch" themselves - just as you would if you were falling.
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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
- change of direction
The changes in the environment may be barely noticeable to you. But they can be strong and overwhelming for your baby's senses, who isn't yet adjusted to the outside world.
Parents may notice the Moro reflex happening \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. They are responding to an uncomfortable stimulus and looking out for protection. Of course, YOU know that they are just fine, but their tiny little nervous system is reacting just as it should.
The video above, by Nurse Sarah of registerednursern.com, shows how to assess the moro reflex.
Why does the Moro Reflex in newborns happen?
Even though you are gently laying your new 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. It's really your little one's first attempt at protecting themselves against danger - just as you would do if you were in harm's way. It is believed that this survival instinct is the baby's way of reaching out to cling to its mother. Pretty amazing.
Webster's Dictionary gives the following medical definition of "Moro reflex":
Luckily, there are a few main ways that you can help ease the Moro reflex for your little one.
3 Ways to Reduce & Stop Startling
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 or calming music (as we discuss here) to drown it out. If you have to move around your baby while they sleep, do it as calmly as possible. Be on the look out for specific triggers for your little one, in particular. There may be something recurring that you can easily eliminate.
- 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. Swaddling you baby can be an effective technique to help clam your baby and prepare them for sound sleep. 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 can be tricky!
That's where the Dreamland Baby Weighted Swaddle comes in.
It offers a fool-proof swaddle that wraps securely around your baby's arms and chest. This swaddle is extra special because it's gently weighted. Remember we mentioned how comforting hands on your baby and keeping them close to you can keep them from startling? The weight provided by the sleep sack mimics the feeling of a hug - which is the type of protection they are seeking. Though swaddling, in general, may help with the Moro reflex, the weight provided by the Dreamland swaddles and sleep sacks is an added feature to help relax your little one.
Here's what one mom is saying about the Dreamland Baby Weighted Swaddle she used during the Moro Reflex age:
Helping Calm Your Baby When They Experience the Moro Reflex
Even with the most thoughtful care given to your newborn baby while they are falling asleep or in the midst of dreamland, it's inevitable that the Moro reflex will occur at one time or another. So, what can you do to help your baby fall back asleep or calm them when this happens?
Even though we do recommend ultimately teaching your baby to fall back asleep independently, at this young of an age, and with the feeling that comes with the Moro reflex, it's best to comfort your baby. This way they realize right away that they are safe and will calm more easily. This includes:
- gently tucking your baby's arms and legs back in
- swaddling or re-swaddling - even if a swaddle was already on, sometimes a swaddle will have loosened and this can give them back the close comfort they lost momentarily
- holding your baby tucked in close to your body
Ultimately your baby wants to feel safe, protected, and loved. Instinctually you'll probably do this anyway, but this will get them back to sleep much more quickly than allowing them to try on their own.
When Does the Moro (Startle) Reflex Go Away & Disappear?
The Moro reflex is just one of the many reasons your baby might not be able to sleep well. The suggestions provided, especially the weighted swaddle sleep sack, will help a lot. The other good thing is that this natural response won't be around forever. You're probably wondering how long the Moro reflex will last!
Over time, you'll see the jerky movements become less and less pronounced. Somewhere between 4-6 months of age (remember that all babies are different!) you will no longer see your baby experiencing this reflex. Interestingly enough, this is around the same time your baby will start to roll over. Strengthening of the muscles go hand-in-hand with the Moro reflex subsiding. Swaddling (which is only safe for babies who aren't rolling) will make way for sleep sacks, instead.
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 using a weighted wearable blanket in place of a swaddle (once they begin 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.
How long should the Moro reflex last?
Your doctor and pediatrician will tell you that the Moro reflex usually lasts for a few months. While every baby is different, most parents notice their baby’s startle reflex peaks in the first month and begins to fade at around 2 to 4 months. At around 6 months, it should be gone.
How do you know if your baby has Moro reflex?
The startle reflex is the sign of a healthy nervous system and occurs in the majority of newborns as an automatic or involuntary reflex. If it looks like your baby is startled, they are! Their back may arch, their arms might stretch with their tiny hands open. This is all very typical and nothing to be worried about as the Moro reflex is often referred to as our fight or flight instinct.
If your baby doesn’t show signs of the Moro reflex, there could potentially be an underlying issue that should be discussed with your doctor/pediatrician.
Can I reduce my baby’s Moro reflex?
Swaddling may help reduce your baby’s Moro reflex, mostly so they don’t wake themselves up while getting their much needed sleep! The Dreamland Baby Weighted Swaddle can help with this as it helps your newborn feel calm, thanks to the evenly distributed weight that goes from your baby's shoulders to toes. This helps to reduce stress and increase relaxation. The easy-to-use, built-in swaddle band takes the guesswork out of swaddling. It will help your baby sleep and provide them with the security and comfort that reduces their Moro reflex.
What happens if the Moro reflex doesn't go away?
Every baby is different but by the time your baby reaches around 6 months, the Moro reflex should be gone. Persistent Moro reflex may be a sign of over sensitivity and/or over-reactive sensory stimulus. It’s possible this could result in anxiety, social immaturity and poor impulse control. Of course your doctor or pediatrician should be made aware of this if they don’t notice it. Be sure to discuss it at your baby’s next check up.
What are some other newborn reflexes?
According to HealthyChildren.org, “Many of your baby's movements in their first weeks are done by reflex. This means it is involuntary or happens without your baby trying. If you put your finger in their mouth, they suck reflexively. They shut their eyes tightly to a bright light. Some reflexes remain with newborns for months, while others go away in weeks.”
Other reflexes include:
- Rooting: prompts your baby to turn their head toward your hand if you stroke their cheek or mouth. This helps them find the nipple at feeding time. At first, your baby will root from side to side, turning their head toward the nipple and then away in decreasing arcs. Then they will simply move his head and mouth into position to suck.
- Sucking: Sucking is another survival reflex present even before birth. In fact, if you had an ultrasound during pregnancy, you may have seen your baby sucking their thumb.
- Grasping: You'll see still another reflex when you stroke your baby's palm and watch them immediately grip your finger. Or, if you stroke the sole of their foot, you can watch their toes curl tightly.
- Stepping: if you hold your baby under their arms (being careful to support his head as well) and let their soles touch a flat surface, they should place one foot in front of the other and "walk." This reflex will disappear after two months, then show up again toward the end of the first year as the learned behavior of walking.
See our other favorite posts for further reading:
- Weighted Sleep Sack Safety and How It Will Help Your Baby Sleep
- The Best Wearable Blankets
- How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Nursing
- Best Swaddle for Newborns
- Signs It’s Time to Stop Swaddling Your Baby
- Are Sleep Sacks Safe for Babies Who Can Roll Over?
- How to Get an Overtired Baby to Sleep
- How to Wash & Clean Your Dreamland Baby Sleep Sack
- How to Stop the 45-Minute Intruder During Your Baby's Naps
- How To Swaddle Your Dreamland Baby
- Baby Napping Close to Bedtime and How to Do It Right
- Cluster Feeding at Night: Why Babies Do It and How to Manage It
- Know the Facts: What's Safe and What's Not for Baby's Tummy Sleep
- How Should A Sleep Sack Fit?