Technically, your baby has the reflex when he or she is in the womb. They start to gain this reflex around 28 weeks (although it’s incomplete – we can tell by observing premature babies) and have it officially by 34 weeks. We can sometimes see babies startle in the womb, but this isn’t common (you’ll see why in a minute).
The reflex activates when your child has a sudden feeling of a loss of support – or falling. There are three components to this reflex. These actions happen very quickly together.
- Baby’s arms will spread out suddenly
- Baby’s arm will come together suddenly like he/she is trying to catch something
- Baby will be irritable and often cry a bit.
The reflex is active at birth and fades around four or five months old.
So why do babies startle?
For a long time, babies were carried by their mothers all day. We still do a lot of this today, but there was a long stretch of human history where people were nomadic – following the seasons and food sources all over. In evolutionary terms, that time wasn’t very long ago.
So the theory is that the startle reflex is an evolutionary trait that helped babies cling to their mother if they fell, or at the very least make enough of a commotion to alert mom that baby has separated. It’s not very effective for infants, but it’s quite possible for a four or five month old baby to catch him/herself.
Why is the startle reflex a pain for parents?
Babies can startle in their sleep, which is frustrating for parents because it wakes their children up. During the first months of life, a baby needs to be sleeping pretty much every minute they aren’t eating. Parents spend an enormous amount of time putting their infants to sleep, which can be instantly wrecked by a poorly-timed startle.
How do we prevent the startle reflex?
Technically, you can’t stop the startling from happening. It’s a reflex in their brain that we can’t adjust. The best thing we can do is work around it.
The best solution is to swaddle. A swaddle works in three ways.
- It help prevents the reflex from occurring because baby always feels confined and safe. When baby feels pressure all over, there’s no sense of falling or loss of balance.
- It reduces the impact of the startle. When a swaddled baby startles, he/she is instantly comforted and confined. Their movement is limited so they’re less likely to wake themselves up.
- If they are woken up, the swaddle is the perfect environment to fall back to sleep.
You can’t beat the startle reflex, but you can work around it. Hopefully this information helps you help your baby sleep better.
Written by Karen Barski, BSN, RN, Mother of five, Certified Infant Care Specialist & Instructor, & Inventor of the Woombie Baby Swaddle
Karen has been an RN for 18 years, and has worked in many different nursing roles. As a Certified Infant Care Specialist, Karen counsels thousands of families yearly on a multitude of issues relating to pregnancy and infancy. Also, as a mother of five, she has invaluable experience and tips to share.
Since 2007, Karen’s company, KB Designs, has invented a line of signature baby swaddle products that have helped parents easily transition their new babies from womb to home. There are multiple designs and sizes so that babies can enjoy the comfort and security of the Woombie up until the time they begin to roll.
Each product has been created and designed by Karen because of a need she identified in her life with her five children. With convenience, safety, and fashion in mind, KB Designs has helped over a half million babies and counting!
For more information, visit www.woombie.com.
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