The step reflex is one of the primitive or infant reflexes observable in newborn babies. Also called the walking reflex or the dance reflex, it refers to the stepping motions made by a baby when his feet touch a solid surface. Although it appears that the baby could walk, he cannot support his own weight and does not have the balance required to do so.
This behavior can be demonstrated by a person holding a baby upright in a standing position while supporting him under his armpits. The adult should allow the soles of the baby’s feet to lightly touch the surface of a table or the floor. After this, the baby should start to alternately move his feet as if walking.
A step reflex is present at birth and should disappear by three or four months of age. It will become a voluntary behavior when the baby reaches around eight to 12 months old. This is the period when the baby begins to learn how to walk.
The presence and strength of the step reflex is an indicator of neurological functioning in a newborn. The strength of the reflex response of the baby, however, will depend on his arousal level. A baby who is feeling tired or sleepy may not respond as expected. Continuous inability to exhibit the behavior, regardless of the baby's arousal level, may be a symptom of an underlying problem and should be reviewed by a doctor.
Total absence of the step reflex, as well as its persistence beyond four months of age, could indicate problems with neurological functioning, such as cerebral palsy. Infants who are suffering from a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome will have an absence of step reflex as one of its symptoms. Neonatal abstinence syndrome refers to a set of withdrawal behaviors that are observed in infants who were exposed to drugs like opiates and methadone while in the womb.
An asymmetrical reflex, where the behavior is only observed on one side but not on the other, could indicate a lesion in the parts of the brain or spinal cord that control the reflex. Adults who have experienced brain injury or a stroke may suddenly exhibit a return of the primitive reflex as a result of damage to the brain. The step reflex, along with other infant reflexes, is assessed at birth and during periodic well-baby visits to the pediatrician.