Rhythm and Reflexes (or, Why We Rock Babies)
by Kathy Fraser
The dramatic rise in diagnoses of learning and behavioral “disorders” appears larger each year. As an elementary teacher, I’m always watching for signs of learning difficulties and ways to address each students’ needs within the classroom day and with tools at hand. I was intrigued when I learned of certain therapeutic activities used in Waldorf curriculums that treated both academic and postural problems with patterned large motor skills. It led me to explore the connection between rhythmic movement and brain development. I discovered the work of Peter Blythe and Sally Goddard Blythe at the Institute for Neuro-physiological Psychology in England. Their research on infant reflexes reveals a link between skipped stages of movement and later complications with physical, emotional and behavioral development.
Babies all over the world are genetically programmed to move their tiny bodies in specific ways. Some of these reflexes begin in utero, others appear after birth. Most of them help to prepare the baby for its trip down the birth canal (in which it is an active participant), for breathing air, navigating in gravity (vestibular sense), and generally getting adjusted to life outside the womb. Many of these reflexes aid the child in raising itself upright, creeping and crawling and eventually walking. Tied in with this is the development and integration of all the senses: touch, temperature, vision, sounds, and a sense of the self in open space (proprioception). Fully adapting to the “outside” world takes the brain/body at least a couple of years, and requires lots of sensory stimulation. The role of the reflexes in this is critical: as each one appears, is practiced and mastered, it evolves into the next stage of movement, and the infant’s brain lays down the neural foundation for subsequent development. A weak foundation, or underdeveloped reflexes, means the rest of the construction may be unstable. That instability may manifest in balance and coordination problems, difficulty orienting in space, or a number of other symptoms.
As an example, the Moro reflex, one of the earliest to begin developing in the fetus, prepares the infant for its first “breath of life”. Premature babies delivered prior to 30 weeks will not have fully developed this reflex, and this may account for a high incidence of lung complications among preemies. The reflex is activated in response to a sudden surprise or even a change in head position: there is a sudden intake of oxygen (often followed by a cry), the arms are thrown up symmetrically with a quick opening of the hands and slight freeze before the limbs curl back in to a more protective position. It normally transforms into the Adult Startle Reflex, in which the trigger causes a quick shoulder shrug followed by a turn of the head to find the source. Once the disturbance is identified, the infant will return to its previous activity or respond to the disruption. If the Moro Reflex persists beyond the neonatal stage, the child may be extremely sensitive to all stimuli in the environment, unable to focus, and constantly “on alert”. This reflex is associated with the lowest brain stem area, the place we go when we “freeze up”. The body/brain cannot efficiently discriminate serious threats from mild ones, so the child may be in perpetual “fight or flight” mode. Because the Moro Reflex signals the body to increase heart rate and elevate adrenaline and cortisol, the child with a retained Moro may be very aggressive; conversely, he may be extremely withdrawn, silent or immobile. This continual state of stress taxes the immune system, and the child may be prone to illness, allergies and infections. All these symptoms would certainly interfere with school life.
The normal development of the reflexes may be disrupted through trauma (including surgery), stress (particularly the mother’s), injury, or even just lack of opportunity (as with the Eastern European “warehouse” orphans or children who just walk very early). When this happens, the body/brain continues to seek chances to “practice” the movement, even if its original purpose is no longer relevant. The most logical remedy then, is to give that movement plenty of time to continue their unfinished work. This is just what is advocated by the INPP, and many others as well. Dr. Harald Blomberg, a Swedish psychiatrist, developed Rhythmic Movement Training (RMT), an approach to address retained reflexes based on the work of his colleague, Kirsten Linde. It involves patterned repetition of these movements as needed on an individual basis. With older children and adults, the movements are supplemented with isometric pressure, a method developed by Russian psychologist, Svetlana Masgutova.
I recently attended a 3-day workshop on RMT for preschoolers and kindergarners conducted by Sheri Hoss, M.Ed., an education and movement specialist. She is also a consultant for Brain Gym, another system that integrates physical stimulation with academic, emotional and behavioral skills. Most of the participants were occupational therapists, though a couple of us were teachers. We spent hours screening each other for retained reflexes and then practicing the remedial exercises recommended by Dr. Blomberg. Some involved a care-giver gently rocking a passive child/client, and other movements could be done on one’s own, with partners or in groups. Our instructor emphasized checking in with the test subject about their comfort level and remaining observant for signs of stress or difficulty. Some of the exercises may elicit emotional responses, even regression, because of their stimulation of lower brain regions. We practiced synchronizing our breathing and pace with that of our partner, which made the passive exercises much smoother and more relaxing. Those of us who had exhibited signs of retained reflexes experienced improvements immediately following just brief practice, though Dr. Blomberg suggests it may take several months to fully inhibit a strongly retained reflex.
I was not surprised to see that many of the exercises were familiar to me from yoga and tai chi. I had also encountered similar movements through different subject teachers at Rudolf Steiner College, a Waldorf teacher training center. Much of the remedial work done in Waldorf schools uses very similar gestures (Spacial Dynamics® or Extra-Lesson for example), and draws heavily on the healing nature of rhythm. Rhythm is a fundamental component of Dr. Blomberg’s program: a gentle, relaxed, steady motion seems to be crucial to stimulating the corresponding brain centers. Given that our development from the moment of conception is guided by all the biological rhythms of our mother, it’s no surprise that this is a powerful therapeutic element. The curative potential of rhythm is something I’d encountered already in the whole Waldorf approach to education: the teacher takes into account the rhythms of the seasons, the week, the day, the children themselves. Patterned rhythms are built into the games, the form drawings, the recited verses, and the bean-bag exercises that are done each day.
Healing rituals of numerous cultures involve rhythmic drumming or chanting. Rhythm is also strongly recommended by Dr. Bruce Perry, PhD., in his ground-breaking treatment of traumatized children. Working with neuro-sequential (from the “bottom” to the “top”) goals, his approach emphasizes predictable rhythms in the child’s routines but he has also literally prescribed dance and music classes to his patients. His book, “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog”, describes several case studies in which patients had to “go back” to where healthy development was delayed and process there until the brain’s early need is fulfilled. In “The Brain That Changes Itself”, author and doctor Norman Doidge describes a stroke victim who learns to walk again by returning to creeping and crawling stages first, developing a rhythmic pattern of left and right, rewiring his brain along a path it had already used once before with success. His experiences with the plasticity of the brain even at later ages are inspiring and hopeful.
The wisdom of the old lyrics “Get Rhythm (When You Get the Blues!)” bounces around in my head as I think about this unfolding of human potential, emerging as it has for ages, to the steady, universal beat of our hearts and breathing, the tides, stars and seasons. Rhythmic Movement Training deepened my understanding of the importance of each stage in that unfolding. I’m taking away a repertoire of wonderful games and activities to share with my dear students and friends, but I’ve also been given the reminder to follow and not rush the rhythm of nature.
Swinging creates a healing motion and rhythm that helps organize the senses
About the author: Kathy Fraser. “I’m a K-2 teacher at an independent community school in rural California. It runs on solar panels, firewood, volunteer sweat and lots of bake sales and raffles (we are locally famous for our prolific quilts). I have a tiny, mixed-age classroom of 10 kids and they love to eat, do real work and be outside! We take long hikes, have discoveries and discussions, visit neighbors, cook, make music, and go barefoot a lot.”
Games Children Sing and Play: singing movement games to play with young children by Valerie Baadh Garrett and Joan Carr Shimer, with an introduction by Sally Goddard Blythe
Movements That Heal by Harald Blomberg
A Teacher’s Window Into the Child’s Mind and The Well-Balanced Child by Sally Goddard Blythe
Disconnected Kids by Dr. Robert Melillo
Take Time by Jean Hunt
Smart Moves by Carla Hannaford