Rooting Reflex

Your baby’s rooting reflex is an involuntary muscle response to stimulation of their mouth. It helps your baby find a nipple to feed. Your baby was born with this and other newborn reflexes to help them survive. Your baby’s pediatrician will monitor your baby’s rooting reflex to ensure your baby’s nervous system is developing properly.

What is the rooting reflex?

The definition of rooting reflex is an automatic oral action a healthy newborn makes. Another name for the rooting reflex is the root reflex. The rooting reflex in babies is a basic survival instinct. This reflex helps your baby find and latch onto a bottle or your breast to begin feeding.

When you gently stroke the corner of your baby’s mouth with your nipple, they should instinctively turn their head toward it to nurse. They should open their mouth and start to make tongue thrusting or sucking motions. This reflex is a feeding cue during the first few weeks of life. It helps your baby tell you that they’re hungry and want to feed.


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When does the rooting reflex develop?

The rooting reflex is present at birth. It’s one of the many newborn reflexes your baby may develop even before birth. Newborn reflexes are your baby’s involuntary muscle reactions to certain stimulation. Involuntary means your baby isn’t in control of these responses. They’re happening without your baby trying. The responses start in your baby’s brainstem and are linked to early development. Other newborn reflexes include:

  • Sucking reflex: The sucking reflex is also a basic survival instinct. When you insert a nipple into your baby’s mouth to feed, they should automatically start sucking.
  • Moro reflex: The Moro reflex, or startle reflex, is a protective reaction to a loud noise or sudden movement. When an abrupt sound startles your baby or their head falls backward, they should extend their arms and legs.
  • Tonic neck reflex: When you turn your baby's head to one side, their arm on that side should extend with their hand partly open. Their other arm should bend and flex, with their fist tightly clenched.
  • Stepping reflex: If you hold your baby upright and let the soles of their feet touch a flat surface, they should place one foot in front of the other, as if they’re walking.
  • Babinski reflex: When you stroke the bottom of your baby’s foot from their heel to their toes, their big toe should move upward. The rest of their toes should fan out.
  • Grasping reflex: When you stroke the palm of your baby’s hand, they should grab your finger and hold on tight. When you place a finger below your baby’s toes, they should curl their toes over it.

What’s the difference between my baby’s rooting reflex and sucking reflex?

Both are oral reflexes involved in feeding, but there’s a distinct difference between the rooting reflex and the sucking reflex. The rooting reflex happens when the corner of your baby’s mouth is stimulated. The sucking reflex occurs after the rooting reflex, when the roof of your baby’s mouth is stimulated. When a nipple touches the roof of your baby’s mouth, they should automatically begin sucking. Your baby knows they’ll find a nipple by rooting. They know that sucking means they’ll get the nutrition they need through feeding.

The sucking reflex during breastfeeding (chestfeeding) actually happens in two stages. First, your baby will place their lips around your areola, the circular area of skin around your nipple. Your nipple will be far back in your baby’s mouth when they compress your breast between their tongue and the roof of their mouth (palate). This is the action that forces the milk out (expression). During the second stage, your baby’s tongue will move from your areola to your nipple to begin nursing (milking).

Your baby’s sucking reflex is responsible for coordinating your baby’s breathing with swallowing. Even though the sucking reflex is instinctive, it’s not easy. Your newborn has to learn how to suck, breathe and swallow all at the same time.


When does the rooting reflex disappear?

The rooting reflex should go away within four to six months of age. As the frontal lobe of your baby’s brain develops, it replaces your baby’s newborn reflexes with voluntary actions. Your baby will learn they don’t have to search for a nipple anymore because they know they’ll have a chance to eat regularly. Your baby will learn about hunger cues and will stop responding to every touch with the instinct to nurse. When you offer your baby your breast or a bottle, they may turn away if they’re not hungry.

How do I know if my baby’s reflexes are developing correctly?

Your baby’s pediatrician will use the newborn reflexes, including the rooting reflex, to assess your baby’s health. The presence and strength of these reflexes are important cues that your baby’s nervous system is developing properly. It’s important to monitor your baby’s reflexes. Watch for the following signs, which may indicate a problem with your baby’s nervous system:

  • You notice any newborn reflexes have disappeared before you think they should.
  • You notice any newborn reflexes have lasted longer than you think they should.
  • You notice a newborn reflex goes away and abruptly comes back.

Talk to your baby’s healthcare provider if you notice any of these signs or are worried about your baby’s reflexes or development.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Your baby’s rooting reflex is a natural instinct they’re born with to help them survive their first few months of life. Your baby’s pediatrician will test this and other reflexes to make sure they’re present and strong. As your baby gets older, the rooting reflex should disappear as they learn they don’t need to root to signal the need for food. Every baby is different, and when your baby loses this reflex is specific to them. Speak with your baby’s healthcare provider if you have any concerns about your baby’s reflexes or development.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/14/2022.

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