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how does learning of reflexes contribute to cognitive development of a child

The famous psychologist William James suggested that a newborn experiences a “blooming, buzzing confusion”. According to him, babies are born with essentially no knowledge of the world, much like John Locke’s view of tabula rasa i.e. babies are born as blank slates. There’s been a shift in this viewpoint, however, in recent times, evident by several experiments carried out by developmental psychologists. 

For instance, Trehub & Rabinovitch (1972) demonstrated that the cognitive development of babies may be understood by their responses to stimuli around them. For example, the babies were given a pacifier and had a chance to control which shapes they saw or sounds they heard. The sucking behavior was used as a measure of the infant’s interest and the harder they suck on the pacifier, the more interested they were in the respective stimuli.

Similarly, a child’s reflexes tell a lot about his/her cognitive behavior. According to the famous cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, reflexive behaviors are used for interacting with the environment entirely in newborns. As they have not developed the higher cognitive ability to think, they engage in involuntary behaviors and follow their instincts to get their needs fulfilled. As they grow, this behavior becomes more goal-directed and intentional. During the same time, they form the concept of object permanence, i.e. knowing that something still exists if it is not in the field of view. 

Object permanence and goal-directed behaviors are the milestones of cognitive development in infants. However, these can only be developed if a child’s reflexive activity is adequate. For example, babies are equipped with “survival reflexes” and other reflexes through which they learn new behaviors and survive in this world. Some of these reflexes are:- 

  1. rooting reflex- necessary for feeding behaviors.
  2. blink reflex- protecting the child from dangerous stimuli.
  3. withdrawal reflex -keeps the exploring infant away from painful stimuli.
  4. tonic neck reflex -helps in eye-hand coordination.
  5. grasp reflex – important for exploratory learning.
  6. moro reflex – protects the baby from falling.
  7. stepping reflex – encourages motor development. 

These reflexes can be observed by the responses of the baby when the stimulus is presented. For example, if you put your finger in a baby’s mouth, they will reflexively suck it; or if there is a bright light, they will involuntarily shut their eyes. 

Reflexes are considered absolutely necessary for survival and cognitive development. If you observe that your child is lagging behind developing some reflexes or that the reflexive activities are slow or inadequate, then it is a matter of concern. It is likely that the child’s cognitive development will be delayed as well because reflexes form the basis for higher cognitive development. 

Seeking professional help from a developmental or a child psychologist will help you to understand the situation and deal with it in a better way.. These practitioners are experts in the field and understand the developmental milestones that a child has to achieve with respect to his or her age. They may also give you a clear picture of the stages of cognitive development and through various therapeutic techniques can help the child grow and develop better.

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