You tried everything to soothe your baby, finally, after what seemed like hours, your little one falls asleep, just to suddenly startle when being put back into the crib. Or maybe after all that effort, a sudden sound or movement makes your baby wake up and cry? If any of this seems familiar your little one might be suffering from the moro reflex.
What is the moro reflex?
The moro reflex is a natural response by your baby to an abrupt disruption of balance (the baby feels like she’s falling). This often tends to happen when a mother soothes a baby close to her body and then places it in the crib, suddenly removing the support. Also, a newborn can often be startled by sudden stimuli like a sharp, loud sound, bright light or abrupt movement. Some of the triggers might be much more subtle, even hard to notice for a parent, but enough to startle a baby that is used to the womb-like environment and is generally a lighter sleeper than adults.
The quickest way to identify the moro reflex is when your baby suddenly extends her arms and legs during sleep, arches their back, or quickly curls in. In general, this unwelcome surprise results in tears for your little one.
What’s normal and what’s not
Startling is just one of many reflexes that is natural for your baby and tends to fade away with age. Some
Examples of what’s natural for your newborn include:
- Sucking (if something comes near the babies’ mouth, it will intuitively seek nourishment and start sucking)
Rooting (another reflex associated with feeding: baby will naturally turn towards a breast or hand that touches its cheek)
How Long the Moro Reflex Usually Lasts
The moro reflex is usually present right from birth. This is the time of biggest shock for a newborn, that has to learn how to soothe and sleep with all the new external stimuli. During this period undoubtedly the best solution is to provide a womb-like environment by using a wrap or swaddle. Moro reflex is weak in preterm newborns because of lower muscle tone, poor resistance to passive movements and slow arm recoil.
After 2 or 3 Months
From around the second month, your little one should become calmer. It might still startle when being laid to sleep or wake up in the night because of the moro reflex but your embrace and soothing touch should bring her back to sleep. Alas, not all babies are the same and some require more care like bouncing, patting, light pressure on the back, etc. to get back to sleep.
After 6 Months
By the sixth month from birth, the moro reflex should more or less be gone. This is a sign that your baby’s nervous system is developing properly and your little one is getting stronger. This, unfortunately, doesn’t mean your baby is just going to sleep well from 6 months onwards. According to data, 16% to 21% of infants over 6 months old continue experiencing nocturnal wakefulness (night wakings that allow infants to signal parents’ provision of comfort. So there are many more factors than moro reflex to consider.
Retained Moro Reflex
It’s natural for some babies to take a little longer to grow out of the moro reflex, however, if your little one continues to startle after six months, it might be good to consult a doctor. There are many reasons why a baby might experience a retained moro reflex, including trauma, injury, illness or nervous system problems. Also studies show, that even if babies stop startling and experiencing moro reflex at night one in 10 infants and toddlers continue to have problems sleeping at night and may be at greater risk of developing a sleep disorder as they get older.
How to Stop the Moro Reflex
Here are some ideas to reduce the frequency and impact of the moro reflex, helping your baby (and you) have a good night’s sleep.
It’s not surprising that a parent’s touch does wonders for the baby, so make sure that after soothing your newborn to sleep you are laying it down very slowly, keeping the baby close to your body all the way down until it’s in the crib and retaining balanced support all the while. For some parents, it helps to pat or lay a hand on the child before pulling away. Be patient. Laying the baby down too early, or pulling away too early can result in the baby waking up. Some parents find success counting to a pre-determined number (like 100 or 200). That ensures that you’re giving the baby enough time, and also helps you push through without getting impatient too early and having to start over.
Make sure the room is dark (no screen or street lights), quiet and slightly cool. The surface of the crib should be flat and firm. Aim for an environment that is as low in stimulants as possible to limit the triggers for startling.
Establishing a bedtime routine that is consistent and predictable from your baby’s first months can also greatly improve its sleep. Most importantly, you should set a specific bedtime for your little one, and stick to it. One hour before that, make sure to dim the lights and turn off all the technology around your baby. This will help the baby develop a natural sleep cycle. Another good idea would be a warm bath and a gentle massage in the evening.
For more insights on newborn sleep rules, see our article “Is Newborn Sleep Even a Thing?”
Swaddling helps you create a womb-like environment for your little one by restricting your baby’s movements. It reduces startling and often stops moro reflex completely because the baby feels safe and can’t extend its arms out as it would usually do during the reflex.
Alternatives to Swaddling
The problem for many babies is that they don’t like being swaddled too tightly. Being fully wrapped in something that resembles a cocoon can have a negative effect on your baby’s sleep. Also in some cases, babies need to be transitioned out of a swaddle as they grow older, but continue to experience the moro reflex.
There are not many products for transitioning babies out of the swaddle. Fortunately, we might have a perfect solution for you. Our Zipadee-Zip has been designed to provide both freedom of movement and a womb-like environment using the unique star-shaped design. It helps soothe your baby to sleep, limits the effect and startle of the moro reflex, and extends sleep - for both babies and parents.