Have you ever heard people trying to justify circumcision or piercing their baby’s ears by claiming that babies won’t remember the pain? Well, prior to the 1980s, many medical professionals believed that babies could not feel pain, therefore, medical procedures performed on infants took place without the use of anesthesia. Recent studies have shown that not only are babies capable of feeling pain, but that they actually experience it in a way similar to that of grown adults.
Underdeveloped Nervous Systems?:
Doctors once argued that babies had underdeveloped nervous systems which made it less likely that they were capable of experiencing pain (Lea). They said that movements from pin pricks were just involuntary muscle responses. Pain responses in infants look different from that of an adult, and when paired with an inability to verbally communicate, many professionals were unable to properly interpret pain signals. It was also a common belief that strong pain medications were dangerous to the child and would put their life at risk. This resulted in babies undergoing tortuous procedures which involved them being given muscle relaxants to prevent movement. Their bodies were cut into while they were wide awake, unable to move or cry out.
Many hospitals began using anesthesia on infants by the early 1970s but medical surveys have revealed that some infants who were 15 months or younger were still not given any form of pain relief in American hospitals up to 1986 (Lea). Finally, in 1987, the American Academy of Pediatrics deemed it unethical to operate on babies without anesthesia. Since that point in time, experts have been working hard to find safe methods of anesthetizing babies.
The University of Oxford performed a study with the intention of finding out if babies really are capable of feeling pain in the same capacity as adultst. Their findings will make you sick to your stomach when you think about the countless babies who were operated on prior to 1987. They used the brain scans of 10 babies, aged 1-6 days old and that of 10 adults, aged 23-36 (“Babies…”). The babies were put to bed inside of an MRI machine and they were poked on the foot with a special tool which distributed a jab comparable to being poked by a pencil. The brain scans of the babies and adults were compared and it was discovered that 18 of 20 regions that were active in the adult brain when reacting to pain stimuli were also lit up in the brains of the babies (“Babies…”). The results also showed that babies have a lower pain threshold, with their brain scans lighting up with less pressure.
The brain remembers trauma. Many adults who underwent medical treatments without anesthesia as babies are now struggling with anxiety, depression and other chronic posttraumatic illnesses. Even if a child may not have a memory of the pain or the trauma, their bodies will remember and will be affected. It is vital that we continue to educate ourselves on these matters so that we can oversee the care that our children receive.
If that didn’t make you grateful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!
Until Next Time
- “Babies Feel Pain like Adults.” University of Oxford. 21 April. 2015. Accessed 11 March, 2022. https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-04-21-babies-feel-pain-adults.
- Lea, Robert. “When Did Doctors Start Using Anesthesia on Babies? Medics Thought They Couldn’t Feel Pain”. Newsweek. 2 September, 2021. Accessed 11 March, 2022. https://www.newsweek.com/when-doctors-start-using-anesthesia-babies-medics-thought-they-couldnt-feel-pain-1625350.