The Calf Pump:
Developmental Movement to Release Tendon Guard Reflex
Calf muscles can hold a lot of tension, especially if your little is inclined to toe walk. Tension can also build from movement that is not balanced, meaning there is a focus on using the muscle (walking, running, dancing, climbing) but that movement is not complimented by stretching as well. Most adults do not stretch, and it is even more rare for children to stretch without guidance and encouragement.
Children have an innate (meaning it is instilled in utero during their fetal development) reflex called the “Tendon Guard Reflex” (referred to hereafter as TGR). The TGR is one of many reflexes that children are born with that support their survival, and through normal learning and development become integrated into the nervous system.
Unless they don’t.
Sometimes, reflexes are ‘retained’, meaning, there was not sufficient opportunity for the child to fully express and integrate the reflex, or their developmental process was impacted by trauma (including birth trauma).
The TGR, like all reflexes, has important implications for survival, protection and development. The TGR, while the reflex is located in the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in the calf, becomes a whole body reaction triggered by a message sent to the brain stem, because as you may suspect, everything is connected—the calf to the thigh, to the pelvis, to the spinal column, to the brain. This further triggers the survival oriented part of our brain to choose fight, flight or freeze.
If triggered by a sudden, unexpected sound, sight or sensation, the TGR can trigger a ‘freeze’ response, like hearing a loud thud in a room that you thought was unoccupied. The freeze keeps you safe by keeping you quiet and listening (hearing and vision are activated) for more information, though it also causes contraction in the abdominal, shoulder and neck muscles, effectively curling one into oneself, inhibiting free and easy movement. If this kind of reaction continues to happen without resolution, a child can adopt a narrow and over-focused sense of attention to ‘burn the excess energy’ in the visual field. Children who perseverate or shut-down may be experiencing the TGR in ‘freeze’ mode.
Some folks may react differently to threats—unknown, unpleasant or unfamiliar sensory input—and may experience the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ responses, which then causes the spinal muscles to contact, lifting and extending the spine, making us appear larger and ready to move. In some children who live with ADD or ADHD, the TGR may be hyperactive, causing an excessive widening of the attention span which may result in chaotic, uncontrolled, impulsive behaviour. A clue if this is true for your child is that you notice them walking on their toes, and not extending the heel all the way to the ground.
regulating the tendon guard reflex (tgr)
When integrated, the TGR offers support to good posture, healthy movement, sensory integration, focussed attention, organization, comprehension and over all cognitive development. One of the most noticeable effects when fully integrated is an ability to expressively communicate.
The TGR can be regulated with an easy exercise that you can do at home with your children. When the muscles of the calf are lengthened, the reflex relaxes, invoking the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system associated with ‘rest and digestion’, the opposite of ‘fight, flight and freeze’ and helping the child to fully integrate the reflex.
Dr. Carla Hannaford (1995) offers a calf lengthening exercise that is appropriate for children. She suggests:
“the child lays on her back and the parents place both hands on the bottoms of her feet, gently pushing the ball of each foot (the rounded board part of the foot between the toes and arch) forward so that the calf lengthens. Many children love to push simultaneously with their feet against the parent’s applied gentle pressure, especially when goaded to ‘push me away’, or ‘push me really hard’. The contraction during the push (where the toes move forwards and the heel is higher than the toes) allows the calf to further lengthen in relaxation. This relaxation has an interesting link to verbal skills, and greatly facilitates communication in speech-impaired and autistic children” (pp. 127-128).
Another simple intervention that may feel wonderful for children’s leg muscles as well as their spines is to for parents to push rhythmically on the balls of the feet while the child is lying on the floor or bed. This activity initiates a gentle relaxing movement that rocks the entire body from head to toe. Parents can also massage the bottoms of their children’s feet after a bath or before bed, gently encouraging the foot into dorsiflexion (see image below). The foot should never be forced or coerced. Keep the dialogue going with your child, asking them how it feels along the way, and if they want more or less pressure. Let them determine the degree to which their foot flexes, and over time with practice, the calf muscles will extend and relax.
The TGR is one of many reflexes that respond well to intervention. Calming the TGR can reset proprioceptors and reeducate muscle-tendon systems that habitually contract in unfamiliar circumstances (Rentschler, 2007, p. 6).
If this still feels unclear, or if you feel unsure, just ask one of the staff at Precious Seeds to demonstrate, as we have been working with this reflex for 2 weeks now. We hope that your child enjoys the extra attention, the comforting stretch and the links to more expressive communication.
Yours in health, comfort and care,
Hannaford, C. (1995). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Arlington, VA: Great
Rentschler, M. (2007). The tendon guard reflex. New Developments, 12(4), 6.