Carrying reflexes spotlight: Babinski’s sign
Before babies have a greater awareness of how to use each part of their body, and how to interact with the world around them, they have a wonderful range of primitive reflexes. Primitive reflexes are an immediate, involuntary response to certain stimuli. Some are used to ensure they find and consume food, some are designed to help with their position, others for their safety and so forth.
Newborn carrying is reflexive. There are many reflexes involved in newborn and older baby carrying – far too many to talk about in one blog post – so I’m just going to talk about one of them; Babinski’s sign. This reflex is one of the longest lasting reflexes as it also comes into play when babies begin standing. It fully integrates (disappears and is replaced by voluntary action and postural reflex) once a toddler gains a good sense of balance, but – as with all reflexes – the integration process begins many weeks earlier. Out of all of the reflexes to shine a light on, I’ve chosen Babinski’s as it’s one of the ones which is often overlooked as unimportant.
We know that spinal curves develop from the top down, as babies gain head and neck control first, then upper torso control, and lower torso control as they hit the milestone of sitting unaided, then finish with walking independently as the lumbar spine develops further. This is why Babinski’s hangs around so long – it’s used in earlier development but also needed later on, when physical development is more focused lower down the body.
[Image description: Part of the torso, arm and legs of a white baby in a disposable nappy, and part of blue jeans are in the background. At the front of the picture is a white left hand curled round with the forefinger placed behind the baby’s left foot, and the thumb at the ball of the foot. The baby’s toes are fanned out.]
Babinski’s sign presents as a fanning of the toes plus dorsiflexion (lifting upwards) of the big toe in it’s strongest response. It’s lesser response is fanning of the toes. Its purpose is to help stabilise/balance and it creates a wider surface of the uppermost portion of the foot. It’s elicited by stimulation on the underside of the foot. In standing and walking it’s easy to understand how this may help with the developmental process of standing assisted to walking unaided, but how does this work in carrying?
Well, as the baby’s leg slips down the caregiver’s body (which tends to happen often when they and we are wearing clothing) the sensory input to the baby is telling them to stop this happening and to stabilise, for fear of falling. The immediate physical reaction of the toes spreading creates a wider range for the toes to reach on the body. In the instance of dorsiflexion of the big toe, it provides an opportunity for the baby to “hook” their toe onto the clothing/skin. The reflex can effectively work as a “brake” as well as providing a stabilising point. It’s one of the many reflexes and abilities a baby has to safeguard them against harm, and is something worth celebrating! If you accidentally lose some of your grip on your baby, they have in-born reflexes which attempt to keep them safe in the milliseconds it takes you to realise what’s going on. How magical is that?
Babinski’s sign falls within the “plantar reflex”, and is only really separated as an individual reflex in terms of testing for this specific response. In working action it’s most commonly seen as one part of a multi-response from the foot, and this is seen clearly in carrying. As mentioned above, it helps with slippage on the caregiver, and there are other reflexes which are also stimulated by this message that they’re not holding on well. This group of reactions also sets off other responses further up the body. This is why it’s important to acknowledge that, although reflexes can be elicited independently, they tend to work alongside others when seen in “real life”.
It’s very interesting to note that many reflexes are not well understood, with some of them being thought to be insignificant or “left over ape reflexes”, and Babinski’s is one such example. If we look at different reflexes from an in-arms carrying angle, many begin to make much more sense, and it will be interesting when the day comes that research is conducted from this viewpoint.
It’s also interesting to acknowledge how foot covering is the norm in my culture. Reflexes require sensory stimulation and for Babinski’s that is physical. In the early months foot covering usually comes in the form of socks and/or babygros, which means the stimulation is only partially blocked. Socks are by their very nature snug, though they tend to be baggy at first, as a baby grows into a new size. This means the reflex in action can also be partially inhibited.
As babies get older, we are encouraged to cover their feet further. “Pre-walker” shoes are a thing here in England, and tend to start at UK size 2, which is generally accepted as a standard 3-6 months size. We’re told that they will protect their feet as they begin to explore, which is sad to hear, as the sensory stimulation is blocked even further!
We do have to adapt to the reality of our culture if we won’t or can’t make big changes, and find ways to work with our choices and/or needs, but I don’t believe it should mean we should completely overlook the times where we can go “back to basics” to encourage full sensory stimulation where possible. If you’re looking to encourage active clinging behaviour when you hold your baby, then, where possible, let them have access to the sensory stimulation needed to fully activate the “carrying reflexes”. This builds a great foundation for them to adapt to being carried when there are barriers to stimulation.
Recognizing that Babinski’s sign plays a role in it’s own right in carrying means we can appreciate how it works and when it’s most effective. Knowing that even when it cannot be used in it’s full capacity it still has an important role to play in a “chain reaction” of other responses helps us realise that it is still not a “pointless” reflex!