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New Research demonstrates conclusively babies in first week feel pain

by | Aug 27, 2015

By Dave Andrusko


Editor’s note. My family will be on vacation through the end of this week. I will be posting an occasional new story, but for the most part we will be re-posting columns that ran over the last year. Many will be strictly educational while some will about remind us of notable victories this legislative cycle.

A first-of-its-kind study at Oxford University demonstrates not only that babies in their first week after birth can and do feel pain, they are also far more pain-sensitive than are adults. The findings were published in the journal eLife last April.

As Science Codex described the findings, “The researchers say that it is now possible to see pain ‘happening’ inside the infant brain and it looks a lot like pain in adults.”

Rebeccah Slater, a doctor at Oxford’s pediatrics department, who led the study, said, “Obviously babies can’t tell us about their experience of pain and it is difficult to infer pain from visual observations.” In fact, she noted, “some people have argued that babies’ brains are not developed enough for them to really feel pain … [yet] our study provides the first really strong evidence this is not the case.”

But using an MRI to demonstrate newborn pain was problematic because it was thought babies would not keep still enough.27

“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 so that, for the first time, we could study pain in the infant brain using MRI,” Dr. Slater said

The subjects were 10 healthy babies between the ages of one and six days and 10 healthy adults, ages 23 to 36. (Infants were recruited from the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. The adult volunteers were Oxford University staff or students.)

According to Science Codex

MRI scans were then 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. These scans were then compared with brain scans of adults exposed to the same pain stimulus.

The researchers found that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults experiencing pain were active in babies. Scans also showed that babies’ brains had the same 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.

As virtually all the stories covering the study noted, it was common medical practice for babies to be given neuromuscular blocks but no pain relief medication during surgery as recently as the 1980s. “In 2014 a review of neonatal pain management practice in intensive care highlighted that although such infants experience an average of 11 painful procedures per day 60% of babies do not receive any kind of pain medication.”

Dr. Slater put the importance of the findings in context. “Thousands of babies across the UK undergo painful procedures every day but there are often no local pain management guidelines to help clinicians. Our study suggests that not only do babies experience pain but they may be more sensitive to it than adults”. She added, “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.”

Alluding to recent studies in adults, Dr. Slater said they “have shown that it is possible to detect a neurological signature of pain using MRI. In the future we hope to develop similar systems to detect the ‘pain signature’ in babies’ brains: this could enable us to test different pain relief treatments and see what would be most effective for this vulnerable population who can’t speak for themselves.”

Of course, virtually everything that Dr. Slater said about pain and the newborn child applies to pain and older unborn children (after 20 weeks), especially the conventional wisdom that insisted their brains lacked the structures to feel pain.

In fact there is ample evidence that by 20 weeks, the unborn child can experience pain. To read about just some of the extensive documentation, go to or

Categories: Infants