Search Reflex: Function, Tasks, Role & Diseases

A caress on the cheek or corner of the mouth is enough to immediately trigger a baby’s search reflex. It is one of the most important early childhood reflexes and initiates the newborn’s search for the mother’s breast or bottle of milk. The baby turns its head in the direction of the touch and opens its mouth to suck. Just a few days after birth, it can skillfully work its way up to the mother’s breast (breast crawl). The search reflex (also called rooting reflex) is particularly strong during the first 30 minutes after birth. It lasts until about the third or fourth month of life and then regresses on its own. Only in some babies can the search reflex be stimulated for longer during sleep. The awake child then finds the breast or bottle independently with its sensory organs.

What is the search reflex?

The search reflex is one of the most important early childhood reflexes and initiates the newborn’s search for the maternal breast or bottle of milk. The early childhood (primitive) reflexes are responses of a newborn to external stimuli related to food seeking and intake and self-protection. They initially occur without direct involvement of the cerebrum. Only at later stages of cerebrum development are the reflexes inhibited by the frontal lobes. The successive disappearance of the primitive reflexes is a prerequisite for normal physical and mental development of the child. If the reflexes persist longer than usual, disturbances of motor function and general movement abilities result. These should be compensated by a doctor in time. On the other hand, the reappearance of the early childhood reflexes in adulthood can reveal specific damage to the brain, for example in the case of dementia. The baby receives the stimuli with receptors of the skin or with the sense of balance. Its reflexes develop according to a specific schedule, which is based on the age of conception and consequently begins when the child is conceived. The coming and going of the early childhood reflexes can be determined relatively precisely in time. In addition to the search reflex, they include, for example, the swallowing reflex, sucking reflex and grasping reflex. They all follow a specific, precisely defined reaction pattern. A special form is the so-called Moro reflex, with which the baby clings to a caregiver in order not to fall off. This is more of a typical reaction to a concrete danger.

Function and task

The search reflex arises from the baby’s programming for food intake. Instinctively, it seeks its mother’s breast or a comparable food source immediately after birth. Like other reflexes, the fetus learns the search reflex while still in the mother’s womb. As soon as it is born, every baby develops amazing abilities to satisfy its hunger. Very early on, it can use its legs and feet to move inch by inch toward the mother’s breast while lying on her stomach. It cannot be stopped from this so-called breast crawl, because it wants and needs to satisfy its hunger. In addition, the mother’s breast secretes a secretion whose taste and smell remind the baby of the amniotic fluid it was surrounded by in the pregnant woman’s womb. Thanks to the sucking reflex, the baby will generally not choke when drinking. In addition, the newborn is additionally inspired by the direct skin contact as well as the visual range to the mother. Breastfeeding also has a positive effect on the relationship between mother and child. The mutual relationship thus becomes particularly close right in the first days of the baby’s life. The search reflex is also a signal to the mother that her baby is hungry. Only when it wants to drink will it display the typical reflex behavior. The baby orients itself to the smell of its mother’s breast from the very beginning. If the baby should turn its head away while nursing, the mother only needs to touch its cheek or lip with the nipple and can thus stimulate the search reflex again. However, the infant must not be irritated by extraneous stimuli to the head while drinking, because in this case it will always turn its head away in the appropriate direction. Any pressure on the back of the baby’s head should also be avoided, for example by pressing the baby against the breast. The infant then reacts with counterpressure and may turn away from the mother’s breast with a jerk.

Diseases and ailments

If a baby’s search reflex is weak or not developed at all, it can be activated with special mouth massages. Midwives and pediatricians provide the right instructions for this. Problems of the baby when sucking and drinking may have to do with the lack of vacuum between the mouth and the nipple. In such cases, the nipple should be supported with the thumb to prevent it from slipping out of the mouth. It may also be necessary to improve the baby’s body position so that he or she can suckle more comfortably. Sometimes it is also necessary to press the breast repeatedly against the baby’s mouth. However, enough air must then still reach the newborn’s nose.