What is a Babinski Reflex?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
In infants, it is considered a positive Babinski reflex if the toes extend.
In infants, it is considered a positive Babinski reflex if the toes extend.

The Babinski reflex or plantar reflex is a reflex which occurs in infants when the sole of the foot is firmly stroked. By age two, the reflex should disappear. In children and adults, the appearance of this reflex is a sign of a neurological disorder which may affect the brain or spinal cord, and it usually precedes the development of more severe neurological symptoms. This makes it a useful diagnostic tool.

Doctors will stroke patients'  feet with their thumb or a reflex hammer to test for Babinski's reflex.
Doctors will stroke patients' feet with their thumb or a reflex hammer to test for Babinski's reflex.

This reflex is named for Joseph Babinski, the French neurologist who first took note of it in his patients and described it for the medical community. It is a very useful diagnostic tool because it requires no special equipment, and it can be performed very quickly in a basic neurological exam which is designed to provide information about the general condition of a patient's nervous system.

There are many reflexes doctors can test for by stroking a reflex hammer on different parts of a patient's feet.
There are many reflexes doctors can test for by stroking a reflex hammer on different parts of a patient's feet.

To evoke the Babinski reflex, the sole of the foot between the heel and the toe is firmly stroked with a hard tool or a thumb. In infants, this could cause the big toe to extend, pushing outwards, and often the small toes will accompany it in a splaying motion. Infants demonstrate the reflex because their brains are not fully mature, so the protections which prevent this reflex are not yet present.

The plantar reflex is evoked in infants by firmly stroking the sole of the foot.
The plantar reflex is evoked in infants by firmly stroking the sole of the foot.

In adults, the same stroking motion should cause the toes to curl up, in a normal or negative Babinski reflex. Some people experience a neutral reflex, in which the toes remain in position. If the toes extend, it signifies a problem. The abnormal Babinski reflex in adults can occur in one or both feet, as the pathways which cause the reflex are present on the right and left side of the body. Many adults with an abnormal Babinski reflex may also experience coordination problems and other neurological difficulties.

The Babinski reflex disappears as the baby grows older.
The Babinski reflex disappears as the baby grows older.

If the Babinski reflex is detected in adults, a neurologist will usually request additional diagnostic tests. These tests are used to determine the underlying condition which allows the reflex to occur, and once a diagnosis is made, a doctor can make treatment recommendations and discuss options with the patient.

People should note that this reflex is normal in many adult animals, including most other primates and cats and dogs. Humans who happen to have a cat or dog handy can see the reflex demonstrated by gently stroking the sole of a hind foot, which should cause the animal's toes to splay outwards.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

discographer

There was an article about cerebral palsy and how the symptoms can start to show many months after birth. So parents might not be aware that their child has a problem with their motor development until much later. The article also talked about how early diagnosis and intervention is important.

The babinski sign is an excellent method to catch these problems early on. I think most doctors check for this and some other reflexes during check-ups. But parents spend so much more time with the child and can notice this also.

SteamLouis

I checked for this with my daughter and saw the babinski reflex. I was really worried and was getting ready to take an appointment with a neurologist when my sister told me not to. She is also a doctor and asked me what my daughter was doing when I checked. I told her that she was sleeping.

It turns out that this reflex can happen when babies are in a deep sleep. I think this is only for children under one year. My sister told me about some other health problems that may cause it aside from neurological disorders.

I was so relieved! It's not good to reach conclusions when checking for this reflex.

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    • In infants, it is considered a positive Babinski reflex if the toes extend.
      By: Duncan Noakes
      In infants, it is considered a positive Babinski reflex if the toes extend.
    • Doctors will stroke patients'  feet with their thumb or a reflex hammer to test for Babinski's reflex.
      By: nobasuke
      Doctors will stroke patients' feet with their thumb or a reflex hammer to test for Babinski's reflex.
    • There are many reflexes doctors can test for by stroking a reflex hammer on different parts of a patient's feet.
      By: WavebreakMediaMicro
      There are many reflexes doctors can test for by stroking a reflex hammer on different parts of a patient's feet.
    • The plantar reflex is evoked in infants by firmly stroking the sole of the foot.
      By: detailblick
      The plantar reflex is evoked in infants by firmly stroking the sole of the foot.
    • The Babinski reflex disappears as the baby grows older.
      By: Adam Borkowski
      The Babinski reflex disappears as the baby grows older.