“The early movements of newborns are known as reflexes because a fixed movement response (which babies cannot control) occurs to a stimulus, such as touch, sound or movement of the head. Although many reflex movements of the limbs are not used to achieve a specific goal, they do develop muscular strength and form neurological links which will be used later in more complex movements.
Some of the earliest reflexes enable newborns to suck, swallow, sneeze, turn their heads, support their own weight by hanging onto a rod, grasp objects and make alternate stepping and swimming movements. Reflex movements related to the position of the head also result in changes [-p.151] occurring in muscle tension in different parts of the body and so affect the position of the limbs and body. When the head is tipped forward, for example, the limbs bend and are moved in towards the body (flexion), but when the head is tipped backwards the limbs are straightened and moved out, away from the body (extension). …Babies progressively develop a series of reflexes which help them maintain postural stability and many of these need to develop before they can sit or stand.
In addition, reflexes such as the early grasp and release reflexes of newborn babies cause automatic patterns of finger movements which are incorporated into many more advanced skills. Some of these skills include the ability to grasp, manipulate and release objects, as well as the more advanced fine motor skills such as handwriting, typing and sewing.
What happens to these reflex movements as we grow older? It appears that many of the reflexes that control large and small body movements are incorporated into units of movement in some of our early walking patterns and hand and finger movements, while others assist in maintaining balance.” (150-151)
Ref: Carolyn O’Brien (1994) ‘Motor development and learning in children’ pp.146+ in The Early Years; development, learning and teaching, Eds Gillian Boulton-Lewis and Di Catherwood. The Australian Council for Educational Research: Victoria, Australia.