If movement develops the brain, why is hyperactivity a bad thing?

STIMULATION – The Goldilocks principle
July 20, 2017
Understanding the levels of learning
July 21, 2017

By Dr Melodie de Jager

Everywhere you turn you can find an ad for a movement based programme that promises to be the cure for all ills – dyslexia, poor reading, ADD, ADHD, low muscle tone, poor self-esteem, problems with crossing the midline, an inability to establish hand dominance, etc.  The bit that really doesn’t make sense however is how movement could cure, or at least reduce, hyperactivity. Come on, really? More movement is needed for a child to be less hyperactive?


There are many kinds of movement – eating, swallowing, rolling, walking, running, jumping, swinging, hanging, waltzing, cutting with scissors or writing between lines, talking and whistling, dancing, sitting up straight, skateboarding, pushing, pulling, lifting or dropping, to mention a few.

To make sense of movement and hyperactivity, movement is divided into two groups – controlled movement and uncontrolled movement.

Uncontrolled movement is reflexive movement such as your heartbeat, breathing and ‘leg jerks’ when your knee is tapped. The purpose of these simple reflexive movements is to keep you alive and well without consciously paying attention to these actions. Because these movements happen unconsciously the mind is free to pay attention to things that require some thinking, like talking and learning.

Babies experience various uncontrolled and reflexive movements in utero and for the first few months after birth. These reflexive movements help them to develop, to be born and to survive early on in life. These reflexive movements act as unseen parents teaching and guiding a baby to develop step by step. Once the reflexive movements have fulfilled their function, they should ‘retire’. They can however resurface if there is trauma or damage, to restart the repair process once again. Damage can occur due to injury, lack of oxygen, radiation, high fever, a near drowning incident, etc.

It is important for these reflexive movements to do their job and then to retire, so more skilled movements can take over and develop. Skilled movement can only develop once primitive reflexes have ceased. Primitive movement can only cease once its task has been completed. So a child has either learned to control his movements or he is experiencing and displaying uncontrolled movement, depending on the ‘maturity level’ of his development.


If these reflexive moments do not do their job properly in the first few months of life, they can continue (active reflexes) and literally ‘hold a child captive’. If these movements continue past their sell-by date (appropriate time frame for primitive reflexes to be active), they prevent further brain development from taking place, specifically in the areas of the brain known to be underdeveloped in children who are hyperactive. These persistent, reflexive and uncontrolled movements constantly prompt the child to move, and leaves the child feeling helpless and without the ability to ignore or control these prompts. No matter how hard he tries to control his body, or how serious the threat is if he does not control his body, or how big the promised reward is should he be able to control his body, he just can’t do it! And this leaves such a child tired, irritable and feeling like a total failure.

Because reflexive movement keeps a child trapped in his more primitive brain, his behaviour shouts of emotional and social immaturity. Even if he is highly intelligent, his intelligence is undermined by his body’s call on reflexive movement.

Do not be fooled into thinking that reflexes are all bad. Reflexes are greatly important! But sometimes the reflexes do not prompt the right kind of movement, and then their task to build pathways cannot be fulfilled, because the pathways are only built by the correct type of movement. The problem is not the reflexes. The problem is poorly developed pathways to the higher centres of the brain.


Conditions during pregnancy, birth and the first few months can be a major disturbance in reflex development. Uncontrolled diabetes, smoking, drinking, insufficient placenta, viral infections and other less than desirable conditions can interrupt reflex activity during pregnancy, as can assisted or traumatic deliveries, early separation and poor feeding after birth.

The ideal conditions

Reflexive movements start early in pregnancy and can easily be seen on scans. A healthy and stress free pregnancy followed by an uncomplicated natural birth, immediate skin on skin contact with mom, and effortless feeding is the ideal conditions for reflexes to fulfil their function. Because reflexes are about brain wiring, these conditions contribute to fast and efficient wiring of all the right parts of the brain. It also makes bonding easier. Due to the ideal brain wiring conditions during natural labour, the high intensity of the stimulation received, plus baby’s active involvement in his own birth, less repetition of these reflexive movements is needed after birth, to complete their wiring before ‘retiring’. A little one born in these conditions, will most probably need less repetition of reflexive movement before his movement becomes controlled, and before he starts to use the higher centres of his brain. Should this same little one continue to grow and develop in similar conducive conditions, he will most likely grow up feeling good, happy, confident and clever. Praise, encouragement and positive feedback from friends and family confirms all of his feelings, so he feels accepted and ready to play his part in the world.

The less than ideal conditions

A baby who has had a tough time in utero, whose birth was complicated and who had to be delivered by a C-section, or whose mom was advised to opt for a C-section (even though the pregnancy was uncomplicated), may need more repetitions of these reflexive movements before their functions can be fulfilled. But because the natural flow of birth was interrupted, so might the natural unfolding of the reflexes be compromised. It does not mean all babies born by an assisted delivery will have problems and all babies born naturally will not have problems, but research has confirmed that babies who were assisted during delivery have to work harder to play developmental ‘catch-up’. Research at the BabyGym Institute in Johannesburg has also confirmed that when a mom and dad know what to do to ‘play developmental catch-up’, the outcome is substantially more positive.

Many parents will confirm that it is more challenging to bond with your newborn after you had major abdominal surgery (C-section), or when your baby feels threatened by touch rather than comforted by touch, or when your baby battles to feed because the suckling reflex wasn’t activated during the natural birth process. When a baby battles to latch and feed after birth, mom’s milk production wanes and the chances of breastfeeding diminishes. To make matters worse, the babies who have had a similar start to life as what has been described above, often also need to overcome hurdles like delayed milestones and learning problems.

One might ask: Is there no way to stop this downward spiral?


Nature is kind and forgiving and ever ready to make amends. The first step is to recognise early warning signs that your baby needs a little bit more of your attention. You can spot these signs in the first week after birth:

  • Ask yourself: Is baby threatened or comforted by touch? If he is comforted by touch he will snuggle up and love to be massaged, rocked and held. If not, he needs to be touched, held skin on skin and rocked gently. If touch is too threatening, swaddling in the first few weeks may be of value while baby is being held and rocked.
  • If latching and feeding is challenging, get help. Suckling is baby’s first milestone and the key to his health and emotional development, get help to improve his latching and to strengthen his sucking.
  • Learn to massage your baby.
  • Make sure he reaches his milestones in sequence. Give or take a month either way of the average age to reach a motor milestone, because a motor milestone says: my reflexive movements are subsiding and I am gaining control of my movement!
  • Make sure he learns to STOP.
  • Make sure he accepts NO when you say NO.
  • Lastly, have fun, you are shaping a life!

And what if the pregnancy and birth was traumatic, feeding a nightmare and the only way he reached some of the milestones was to put him in a supporting chair and later in a walking ring? It is never too late to correct this. Remember, nature is kind and every ready to make amends.

Visit a Neuro-Developmental Physiotherapist, or an Occupational Therapist with Sensory Integration training, or if you want to follow a daily program at home, contact Mind Moves.

If your little one has had an easy time and is growing and glowing, be grateful.

If yours has been a battle do not give up, research has shown that children with problems early in life often outperform others later in life because they have learned to do what it takes to survive. Your story too can be one of success!

De Jager, M. 2011. Brain development MILESTONES & learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute.


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