A new discovery overturns current consensus in the medical community holding that babies have such a small brain that it is not developed enough to feel pain. Based on this premise, newborns go without painkillers, even during invasive procedures.
Oxford University doctors suggest that not only do babies feel pain, but they have a lower threshold to pain than adults. In the study, the first of its kind, researchers discovered in brain scans of infants that babies react in many ways similar to how adults react even when experiencing a mild pain.
“Obviously babies can’t tell us about their experience of pain and it is difficult to infer pain from visual observations,” said Dr. Rebeccah Slater, of Oxford’s department of Pediatrics. “In fact some people have argued that babies’ brains are not developed enough for them to really “feel” pain, any reaction being just a reflex – our study provides the first really strong evidence that this is not the case.”
This study indicates it is possible to see the infant’s brain react to pain similar to an adult’s brain. Until 1980s, the common practice was for babies to undergo surgery without pain relief, except for being given a neuromuscular blocker to stop them from moving.
In 1987, an important study suggested for the first time that doctors were using the wrong assumption, and anesthetics were used for major operations.
Dr. Slater called for a review of the way babies are treated. “Thousands of babies across the UK undergo painful procedures every day, but there are often no local pain management guidelines to help clinicians,” she said. “Our study suggests that not only do babies experience pain but they may be more sensitive to it than adults. We have to think that if we would provide pain relief for an older child undergoing a procedure then we should look at giving pain relief to an infant undergoing a similar procedure.”
MRI scans were taken of the babies’ brains as they were poked on the bottom of their feet with a special retracting rod creating a sensation like being poked with a pencil – mild enough that it did not wake them up. The researchers found that 18 of the 20 pain regions in adults’ brains also “lit up” in babies’ brains.
Scans also showed that babies’ brains had the same response to a weak poke as adults did to a stimulus four times as strong – suggesting their pain thresholds are much lower.
This makes me think about my first memory in life. I had open heart surgery at the age of 2. I don’t remember most of it; the only memory I have is getting the stitches out, and a doctor making me stand up in my crib and raise my arms up high. I remember crying intensely; I have a photograph of that moment and I can see that I was feeling a lot of pain and fear. This was in 1954 when doctors insisted that babies and toddlers felt no pain. I think of all the babies who are circumcised with no pain relief, and a pain threshold lower than adults.