What Is Baby Rooting? All About The Role Of This Reflex In Breastfeeding

Is There A Rooting Reflex in Babies? Here’s What’s Happening During Breastfeeding

October 19, 2020 Updated January 25, 2021

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If you hadn’t spent a ton of time around newborn babies before becoming a mom, you may find yourself marveling at all the cute (and insightful) movements your little one makes when they’re still fresh and new. They’re holding your hand! (Well, finger.) If you hold them upright, they’ll “dance”! Or, oh, look at the way they thrust their arms out like a teeny tiny fencer at the Olympics! Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but these are all actually reflexes (grasp, stepping, and tonic neck, respectively) and a normal part of a newborn’s development. If you notice that your baby gets its mouth into feeding position frequently, that’s a reflex too, called “baby rooting.” Here’s what to know about the rooting reflex, including what is going on in that adorable little head of theirs.

What is baby rooting?

“Rooting” in babies refers to a reflex that happens when the corner of their mouths is touched or stroked, often during or just before breastfeeding. When this occurs, a baby will turn their head, open their mouth, and “root” around for a breast or a bottle in order to eat a little something. And given that it’s a reflex, a baby doesn’t need to be taught to root; it’s just something they picked up in the womb. While they’re in there, they also develop their sucking reflex, which is another important part of feeding in the first several weeks of its life.

After around four-to-six months, when the frontal lobe of their cerebral cortex develops,  a baby typically gets the hang of this feeding thing and starts voluntarily turning their head towards the nipple whether it is attached to a bottle or a breast. And yes, of course, it’s super cute when they do it. Honestly, though, it’s not unlike the way you try to find the straw for your iced coffee with your lips before getting enough caffeine in the morning (which, we’re sure you’ll agree, is decidedly less cute).

How can you test the rooting reflex in babies?

Unsure of whether your baby has developed their rooting reflex? Just gently stroking their cheek or mouth is a simple way to test it out. If they’re ready to root, they’ll turn their little head towards your finger or look like they’re “rooting” around for it from side to side. 

When does the rooting reflex develop? 

Babies are born knowing how to locate their food (your breasts) and how to access it (how to suck/drink). But when does it kick in? At around 28 to 30 weeks, your baby will develop this rooting reflex — so, you won’t have to worry about guiding their mouths toward your nipple. 

Your child’s rooting reflex happens first, and then their sucking reflex goes into effect once your nipple touches the roof of their mouths. Here are some developmental timelines to keep in mind:

  • The sucking reflex develops by at least 36 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Rooting reflex is developed by at least four months of pregnancy.
  • Grasp reflex develops by at least 26 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Moro, a startle reflex, is usually developed after five to six months of pregnancy.

What is “normal” when it comes to the rooting reflex?

As you know, a big part of parenting involves wondering (and possibly stressing) about whether your baby is developing on schedule. This is a question that comes up frequently related to the rooting reflex. For example, while most babies are born with the rooting reflex, it can take longer to show up in some infants. The rooting reflex typically kicks in between weeks 28 and 30 of pregnancy, so it may initially be an issue for premature babies born before that point. If that’s the case, you can hand-express milk for them or guide their mouth towards a nipple until they’re able to locate it on their own.

On the other end of things, if a baby continues rooting beyond six months, it’s called a “retained rooting reflex.” This could potentially lead to issues, including:

  • Baby’s tongue laying forward
  • Extreme or hypersensitivity around the mouth
  • Facing difficulty with solid foods and food textures
  • Thumb sucking
  • Speech and articulation difficulties
  • Issues in chewing and swallowing of food
  • Drooling
  • Hormone imbalance

If you’re worried about your baby’s rooting reflex (whether it hasn’t yet developed, or has stuck around a little too long), bring it up with your pediatrician at baby’s next well visit.

How is rooting different from sucking?

You might be thinking, Hmm, rooting sounds a lot like sucking or suckling. And, really, the initial mechanics aren’t terribly different — but the differences between the two allow them to serve two distinct purposes. The rooting reflex, which comes first, refers to your baby’s instinctive ability to find a nipple (whether it’s yours or on a bottle). The sucking reflex kicks in when the roof of a baby’s mouth is touched. It is a baby’s instinct to draw the nipple into their mouth and contract the muscles of the lip and mouth so as to make a partial “vacuum.” That vacuum allows them to extract milk.

What are some other examples of newborn reflexes?

In addition to rooting, your newborn has a whole arsenal of reflexes up their sleeve. They include:

  • Moro or startle reflex
  • Stepping reflex
  • Palmar grasp
  • Tonic neck reflex
  • Blinking reflex
  • Gag reflex
  • Cough reflex
  • Sneeze reflex
  • Knee-jerk reflex
  • Orienting reflex
  • Yan reflex