Babies are subject to all kinds of hospital procedures adults would receive anesthesia for without any pain relief, because of the archaic belief that they don’t feel pain. This study may mark the end of those dark ages.
It may seem crazy, but until very recently most doctors were trained to believe babies don’t feel pain — or at least not as much as adults do — with the rationalization that their nervous systems weren’t fully developed.
Under this belief, all kinds of traumatically painful operations and surgeries were performed on them without anesthesia or pain medicine until at least the late 1980s.
In 1987, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared it was no longer ethical to perform surgery on premature babies without anesthetics, but to this day, both preterm and full-term babies endure a surprising number of painful procedures without any form of pain relief.
Finally, a landmark study out of Oxford University has proven that babies feel pain not only as much as adults do, but more so.
The pioneering study used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner to determine babies brains “light up” in a very similar way to adults when exposed to the same painful stimulus.
Researchers found that 18 of 20 “pain regions” active in adult brains are also active in newborn brains and that babies are actually four times more sensitive to pain than adults.
Ten sleeping babies, between 1 and 6 days old, were put in cushioned beds inside an MRI scanner and were poked on the bottom of their feet with a special retracting rod.
The researchers say it created a sensation ‘like being poked with a pencil’ and was mild enough not to wake them up.
These brain scans were compared with those of 10 adults exposed to the same pain stimulus.
The scans revealed that babies had the same pain response to a weak “poke” as adults did to a stimulus four times as strong.
“The findings suggest that not only do babies experience pain much like adults but that they also have a much lower pain threshold,” said a university press release.
“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 University’s Department of Paediatrics, lead author of the report.
“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.”
Up until recently, people didn’t think it was possible to study pain in babies using MRI because they wouldn’t hold still in the scanner, Slater noted.
“However, as babies that are less than a week old are more docile than older babies, we found that their parents were able to get them to fall asleep inside a scanner.”
A 2014 study found newborns endure an average of 11 painful procedures per day, and 60% of them receive no pain relief.
“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,” Slater said.
One of the most excruciating surgeries still performed on babies without anesthesia today is circumcision.
Of course, there are serious risks of putting a newborn under anesthesia, but if it’s an operation you wouldn’t subject an older child or adult to it without it, this study makes a strong case for not subjecting a more sensitive infant to it without anesthesia.
Or better yet, don’t put your child at any risk (or through any trauma) and let him keep his whole genitals.