Have you ever visited a baby and felt like the favorite when he or she grabbed onto your finger lovingly? This happened to me recently when I met my husband’s nephew for the first time. He was only a month old, and gazed into my eyes as he gently held onto my index finger with his tiny hand. I felt so moved, and knew for sure that this baby must love me. While the baby certainly doesn’t like me any less than any of his other new friends, the grasp wasn’t necessarily an act of love. In fact, this is known as the grasp reflex. Since it’s a common occurrence, I decided to research the matter and find out why most babies do this.

The grasp instinct is primitive. Though babies rarely need to hold on to their mothers for dear life in the modern world, they likely did at a certain point in time. In fact, many scientists believe this is proof of evolution, since baby primates need to grasp their mothers to stay with the pack, and photos of baby chimps compared with baby infants are strikingly similar. Consequently, when your baby holds on tight to your finger, he actually can’t help it. If you put any slim object in his hand, he will hold on for a few seconds as a reflexive action. Even his feet will curl up when you touch them. This reflex is just as powerful as that tendon in your knee that the doctor hits, and the baby has just as little control when something enters his hand.

Before scientific experiments were more regulated to prevent the injury and death of their subjects, scientists used to have a baby hold on to a pole while it was lifted into the air. Without fail, the baby always held himself up until he was lowered to the ground. Of course, this was only a few seconds, because strength and muscle would be required to hold on for much longer. Never try this with your baby, but know that it is bred from the need to hold on for dear life in compromising situations.

Your baby isn’t trying to tell you that he loves you when he holds your hand, though he certainly does. Instead, this is an instinctive reaction developed centuries ago as the human body developed. It’s okay to let your guests feel special though.

Source: Yasuyuki Futagi et al: The Grasp Reflex and Moro Reflex in Infants. International Journal of Pediatrics Volume 2012 March 2012

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