Primitive Reflexes and Righting Reactions

A Look Through the Lens of Survival, Emotions, and Memory

A critical aspect of the SE® model is the restoration of protective responses (orienting, survival/defensive responses and attachment/bonding). Motor reflexes, which provide for optimal self-protective responses, may be disrupted as a result of trauma, but may also be disturbed in the course of otherwise normal motor development. These developmental disturbances may then be the underlying source of disrupted capacities for self-protection and healthy attachment or may be intertwined with disruptions caused by traumatic incidents. Proper functioning of the sensory systems (visual, auditory, proprioceptive, tactile and olfactory) is another critical element in the overall mechanism of self-protection. As with motor reflexes, sensory systems may be disrupted due to trauma, or via disturbances in the original developmental process for these systems. In this article, the physical processes of orienting, attachment and defense, and their underlying developmental progressions, will be described in the context of the SE® model.

Orienting defensive responses and attachment systems cannot be completely separated because orienting is a primary part of our capacity to defend and to bond. Likewise, the sensory and motor functions, which are critical for self-protection often, serve to support orienting, defense and attachment.


Physical therapists, physicians, occupational therapists and some somatics practitioners who utilize movement therapies understand and use primitive reflexes (PR) and righting reactions (RR) differently. For example, a pediatric physical therapist might evaluate an infant’s motor development by looking at both gross motor patterns (rolling or creeping, for example) and her primitive reflexes or righting reactions to assess developmental level, functional ability and neurological status. A somatics practitioner might look at how well PR and RR are integrated into more mature and complex movement patterns to help direct interventions based on what is missing or inefficient.

It is generally agreed that PR and RR underlie, or form the foundation for, more complex and integrated movement patterns and sequences. This is described clearly by Nancy Start Smith (1). However, I want to propose an additional way of considering the functional importance of PR and RR. I suggest that the PR and RR are hardwired in our nervous systems as instinctual implicit memory and underlie or lay the foundation for flight, fight and attachment/bonding strategies so important for our survival.

The first order of being alive, starting from the moment of conception, is survival. In order to survive, and thrive, mammals need bonding/attachment with those who can nurture them. We also need the physical ability to protect ourselves. The ability to flee a dangerous situation, fight back if threatened, or freeze (shut down in shock if overwhelmed and unable to engage the flight and fight abilities successfully), is also imperative for our survival.

If we look at PR and RR through the lens of survival, we can understand how they form the foundation for our physical, functional abilities of bonding and defense. In the first part of this article is a description of PR, RR and equilibrium responses (ER). In order to place them in context of gross motor development I have listed the expected ages of some gross motor development patterns of movement.

The second part of this article is a theoretical categorization of the PR and RR based on the functional relationship they have with survival/defensive and bonding strategies.

In the part 3, I detail most PR and RR, describing how they are elicited and how I understand their function based on our need and imperative to survive and thrive.

This is followed by a case example to demonstrate how to track for the emergence of motor reflexes and support completion of the thwarted impulses and allow for deepening of the potential for healthier bonding.

Part I: Reflexes, Righting Reactions and Equilibrium Responses

Primitive Reflexes (PR)

Primitive reflexes are stereotypical movement patterns in response to specific stimuli. In other words, each time a stimulus is provided, the same movement pattern is elicited with no or limited variation for typically healthy development. They appear at or before birth, normally developing in utero, while the postural reactions of righting, and movement responses to maintain equilibrium or balance develop later in infancy. Most PR integrate by 4-6 months of age although a few remain as reflexes throughout life. Integration is accomplished when equal and opposite reflexes modulate each other for more variable and mature movements. The PR may not be noticeable in the execution or performance of complex mature movement patterns. During stressful situations, however, they may be distinguishable. An example of this is when a person looks over his right shoulder to determine if it is safe to change lanes on the highway. The car may start to veer to the right because an Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) [see part 3 for details] is present in this relatively stressful environment.

PR are mediated at the levels of the spinal cord and brainstem (reptilian brain) and underlie all movements including righting reactions, equilibrium responses, orienting and survival defensive responses of fight, flight. They are utilized by all movements of the head and neck, underlying orienting and the ability to turn the head and make visual contact in, for example, bonding with mother.

If PR are absent or deficient, development of more advanced movement patterns will be absent, weak or deficient. This includes survival defensive responses and higher-level complex movement patterns. This can result from trauma in-utero, pre- or perinatally or later on in life and can manifest in a failure of physical defense.

Righting Reactions (RR)

RR develop at or shortly after birth in response to the new environment of gravity. They are most distinguishable at 10-12 months old and remain active throughout life, providing integrated movement between the head and trunk, and the body and gravity. They are under control at the mid-brain level and have to do with the relationship to gravity and the relationships between body segments. They underlie one’s ability to orient to our environment and to one’s own body.

There are 2 general categories of RR:

  1. Bringing the head into upright or vertical orientation in space in relationship to gravity

  2. Bringing the head and trunk into mutual alignment with each other

RR underlie movement transitions from lying to upright and turning in relationship to gravity and space. They are required for head lifting, rolling, sitting, crawling, creeping, standing, walking, running, etc., and maintaining postural alignment or tone. They are automatic reactions to a rapid loss of balance and weight shifting.

Equilibrium Responses (ER)

(While this article proposes a theoretical understanding of the survival functions of RR and PR, a description of equilibrium responses is important as they are directly related to integrating PR and RR, and are a functional outcome of integrated PR and RR)

ER appear around 6 months of age and last throughout life. They appear as the infant is beginning to develop the ability to transition from a horizontal position to vertical or sitting. They are automatic, varied patterns of movement to maintain balance by shifting the center of weight and/or base of support. They are elicited by:

  1. Internal change of movement, such as shifting weight from one leg to another while climbing up a flight of stairs

  2. External change or movement of support, such as when a rolling stool being pushed by a toddler rolls faster than she can ambulate or when a dancer is lifted into the air and her partner moves along the floor.

  3. Outside force on body, such as when a football player is hit while running down the field but stays on his feet to continue running.

  4. Enticement outside one’s kinesphere, such as when one partner slowly leans in and the other partner is drawn toward an embrace without falling over.

ER underlie and allow or support turning of the body through space and the ability to have a multidirectional relationship with gravity. They are mediated by higher brain centers, integrative centers such as the cerebellum, and they coordinate with, or are supported by integrated PR and RR.

Functionally, there may be a coordinated, sequential strategy to reflexes, reactions and equilibrium responses. These three are progressively more complex and allow increasingly varied outcomes, but the progression of functional use may be the opposite from their appearance developmentally. Remember, however, when under stress, we regress. The progression would be equilibrium responses, righting/orienting reflexes and then primitive reflex, specifically protective extension. The immediacy or speed with which the movement pattern is needed also determines the order in which they will be executed.

For example, a quick fall while ice-skating may allow the skater time to reflexively put her arm out to try to soften the landing (protective extension) as the only physical defensive movement. However, standing upright on a moving train requires continual slow postural adjustments to maintain one’s balance (equilibrium responses). As the train accelerates righting/orienting reactions take over to allow the person to stay vertical. If the train suddenly and quickly slows down the primitive reflex of protective extension of the leg and/or will be rapidly elicited.

Gross Motor Developmental Sequence (of some gross motor skills)

As an infant develops the ability to achieve and maintain an upright position such as sitting, s/he develops a new relationship with gravity, the environment, and her capacity to interact relationally. (Typical motor development happens in age ranges, not at a specific age.)

  • Rolling—beginning of independent mobility:

  • 3 months—begins to roll back to/from front, more incidentally than purposefully

  • 4-6 months—intentional rolling with immature movement patterns. This may correspond with the beginning of Separation/Individuation stages of psychological development called.

  • 6-8 months—mature segmental pattern of rolling with intention and purpose

Crawling (on belly) and Creeping (on all fours) {I know, this sounds backward but it is the accepted conventional lingo}

  • By 6-8 months purposeful, functional creeping allows independent mobility

Walking—development of the ability to move toward and away from others. Achievement of independent ambulation coincides with the rapprochement and object permanence phases of psychological development.

  • 6 months—bears full weight on legs when held

  • 7 months-may bear full weight independently when holding onto something

  • 9 months—pull to stand and bears full weight

  • 10 months—stands independently and cruises by holding on to something but still cannot get down to sitting independently

  • 11 months—walks holding on to someone’s hand

  • 12 months—stands alone well and sits down independently

  • 13 months—walks without support

  • 14 months—steps off 1 step

  • 18 months—runs without falling and climbs down steps. This may coincide with the beginning of autonomy stage of development.

Hopping, Skipping and Running all develop after walking, between 18 and 36 months.

Bowel and Bladder control typically develop between 2 and 3 years old and coincide with autonomy stage of development. It is the first gross motor skill that requires maintaining control, holding it in and releasing at appropriate times. 

Part 2: Functional Relationship of Primitive Reflexes and Righting Reactions with Survival Responses

PR, RR and ER underlie, support and allow the more complex movement for survival and defensive responses, attachment, and intimacy. As I suggested earlier, there may be specificity of these relationships if we look at PR and RR through a functional lens of survival.

I. Orienting allows a person the ability to scan the environment visually, auditorily or with olfaction (smelling). Orienting requires the ability to move the eyes across the visual field, turn the head and neck, raise the head and hear clearly. Bonding and Attachment require these same abilities.

Underlying Orienting: Defensive Orienting, Exploratory Orienting and Bonding/Attachment

  • Labyrinthine Head Righting

  • Optical Righting

  • Body Righting acting on Body or Head

  • Landau righting

  • Oral rooting (exploratory and bonding/attachment)

  • Nuzzling or Neck Mobility Reflex (Exploratory and bonding/attachment)

  • Startle Reflex

II. Boundaries provide semi-permeable access to one’s body, sense of self and spirit. They allow for healthy connection and attachment with others. Like the membrane of a cell, some from outside can enter and some from inside can exit. All touch and tactile sensations provide the building blocks for development of healthy boundaries. (2)

Underlying Boundaries and Bonding

  • Moro Reflex (bonding)

  • Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) (boundaries)

  • Reverse ATNR (hand to mouth)

  • Pull to sit/pull to stand (bonding)

  • Palmer Grasp (bonding)

III. Survival Defensive Responses of Flight and Fight require the ability to mobilize one’s extremities and stabilize one’s trunk or torso simultaneously.

  • Underlying Flight and Fight

  • Flexor Withdrawal (both)

  • Negative Support Reflex (flight)

  • Extensor Thrust (fight)

  • Crossed Extension (flight)

  • Positive Support (both)

  • Spontaneous Stepping (flight)

  • Placing Reflex (flight)

  • Tonic Lumbar Reflex} flight

  • Lumbar Reach Reflex} “

  • Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) (fight)

  • Protective Extension of arms and legs—defense against a fall (fight)

IV. Other Postural Tone Reflexes (provides core stability upon which the extremities can mobilize)

  • Gallant Reflex

  • Amphibian (abdominal) Reflex

  • Anal Rooting Reflex

Part 3: How to Elicit Primitive Reflexes and Righting Reactions


٠ These reflexes are present as reflexes throughout life 

CASE Example

Case Example of the implicit memory of motor reflexes and responses emerging as a trauma experience is renegotiated with Somatic Experiencing

CC is a 57 year old Caucasian woman whose young adult daughter died 2 years after suffering a traumatic brain injury in an MVA. CC came in complaining of difficulties sleeping, anxiety, severe neck pain and depression. She also suffered severely from thoughts and images intruding into her everyday life—thoughts and images of her daughter while lying in a hospital bed comatose and totally dependent upon her mother for the last year of her life.

Session 4

CC is talking about her daughter, tearing up as she usually does. She opens her eyes widely but briefly and they begin a slight micromovement to the left. She is functioning at an implicit or procedural memory level—somatic memory. I ask her to notice if she is starting to look toward the left or away from the right. After a few moments, “toward the left” and she begins a small turn of her head toward the left (orienting). As she follows the sensation of her movement I notice the fingers of her left hand begin micromovements toward extension (implicityly straightening) and, again, ask her to notice them. They, combined with her eyes and head are the beginning/impulse of an Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex—reaching out and orienting to the left. She surprises herself by saying, “That’s the side my daughter’s car was hit from. If only I could have been there and helped” (protective and attachment—reaching out). I encouraged her curiosity about this and to notice what happens next. She was able to follow her own movement impulses and sensations through a series of twisting, turning and rotating sequences (Righting Reactions and Orienting at an implicit memory level) eventually settling down and into what appeared to be resting. She tremored a bit, relaxed and said, “that is exactly what happened in my daughter’s car accident. I hope she didn’t feel any of that.”

In essence, CC retraced the sensory motor experience her daughter was unable complete, or more accurately, her own experience of freeze/tonic immobility, orienting, action and discharge to settling in response to her imaged experience of what her daughter went through during the accident. Her Image (s i b a m) of events constructed in her mind by what she was told and read completed. The emotional agony her daughter might have been fortunate enough to avoid at the time by going into shock and having severe traumatic brain damage but probably ‘shared’ by her mother (mirror neurons??) had surfaced in her mother. Afterward, she was relaxed and curious, her neck was achy but relaxed and she could move it more fluidly. The overcoupling of the incomplete reflex responses with the intensity of her emotions was able to dis-associate or uncouple. She grieved and cried in a way she “had never done before.” (emotional implicit memory) She was able to track or self-witness the return of protective and attachment movements that had been thwarted earlier as they started with micromovements and became ‘functional’ again. Severe neck pain was gone, her sleep improved over the next few days and she felt a great degree of vitality in her life.


1. Stark Smith, Nancy. An interview published in “The ABC’s of Movement: Primitive Reflexes, Righting Reactions and Equilibrium Responses,” by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s book, Sensing, Feeling, Action, The Experiential Anatomy of Body-Mind Centering. Contact Editions, 1993.

2. Krueger, D, Body Self and Psychological Self: A Developmental and Clinical Integration of Disorders of the Self. Bruner/Mazel Publishers, 1989