When you have a new baby, you can’t help but marvel over every little thing they do. Many parents are especially charmed by some of the funny little movements their babies make, which the experts call newborn reflexes or neonatal reflexes.
Reflexes are instinctive responses to stimuli. Your baby doesn’t think about how to respond to a stimulus — they just react. And you may react to their reaction in a variety of ways, from momentarily panicking to grabbing your camera.
One favorite is the stepping (or step) reflex. Imagine a tiny baby — much too young for walking — appearing to make stepping motions with their legs. Precious!
Let’s examine the stepping reflex, including why it seems to occur and how long you’ll be able to enjoy it.
You’ll recognize the stepping reflex when you hold your baby upright and see those little legs churn. If you hold your baby upright immediately above a flat surface, your baby may stretch their legs toward the surface.
Watch as your baby touches one foot down, then pulls the foot up and puts the other one down. Essentially, it looks like your baby is trying to take steps.
Your baby isn’t actually trying to walk, but the motion mimics the motion that we make with our legs when we walk.
You may wonder why your baby has this stepping reflex. It’s definitely cute, but the prospect of actual walking is still many months away.
So why does your baby look like they’re about to take a wobbly jaunt around your kitchen when they’re only a few weeks old?
Turns out, babies have lots of newborn reflexes. In addition to the stepping reflex, your little one’s list of newborn reflexes will include:
- grasp reflex
- fencing reflex
- startle reflex, also known as the Moro reflex
- Babinski reflex
- Galant reflex, also known as the truncal incurvation reflex
- rooting reflex
These reflexes help your child’s pediatrician assess whether they’re growing and developing on schedule. While every baby has their own timeline, their doctor will be expecting them to meet some basic milestones at certain points.
The stepping reflex is your baby’s response to a certain kind of stimulus, but it also shows that some part of your baby’s brain already understands the motions they’ll eventually need to walk. In fact, the brain prepares for this task very early — these stepping motions have even been spotted in utero.
Your baby will eventually coordinate their leg muscle movements with the ability to stay upright and balance themselves while moving forward. Yet, at 2 months of age, they’re just not ready for this.
So when your baby instinctively makes stepping motions, they’re moving muscles in their legs in a way that will eventually send them scampering around on foot. Think of it as their brain practicing to walk one day.
You’ll generally notice many of the newborn reflexes, including the stepping one, shortly after birth.
The various newborn reflexes won’t all disappear at the same time. Some stick around longer than others.
The stepping reflex tends to disappear around month 2 or 3, so that knowledge may help you relax if you notice one day that your baby’s not showing signs of it anymore.
Rest assured, when stepping returns, it will be intentional and weight-bearing.
Some reflexes that appear during infancy last into adulthood. For example, the cough, sneeze, and blink reflexes all last into adulthood, as do the gag and blink reflexes. And if you’ve ever yawned sleepily or right after seeing someone else yawn, you’ve experienced the yawn reflex.
Anytime your baby doesn’t seem to have a typical reaction, including a reflex, it’s worth consulting your child’s pediatrician. This could be a situation in which your child doesn’t seem to have the reflex at all, it appears weak, or it has disappeared prematurely.
At your child’s next well-baby visit, tell their healthcare provider what you’ve noticed. They’ll likely want to test your baby’s reflexes.
Just when you get accustomed to something about your baby, they change and grow. Those sweet little newborn reflexes are important developmental indicators that’ll eventually go by the wayside, but they pave the way for more exciting things to come.
Before you know it, your baby will be walking and running, and you’ll barely remember the days of the stepping reflex. But if you suspect that something’s awry, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s doctor, who can assess whether your baby’s on track for typical development.