A new study claims that babies feel physical pain just as intensely as adults, and possibly even more so. This contradicts earlier studies as well as the prevailing medical view that, because babies’ brains are undeveloped, they don’t experience pain in any way other than a reflex.
“Our study provides the first really strong evidence that this is not the case,” said Dr. Rebeccah Slater who led the project.
Understandably, creating conditions in which babies could be tested without causing them undue discomfort was a challenge in itself. Accompanied by their parents and nursing staff, infants as young as one to six days old were placed on a cushion that prevented them from rolling their heads, then examined in an MRI scanner.
During the examination, a pointed rod was poked on the soles of their feet. The sensation was described as similar to being gently poked with a pencil. To the relief of the adults, most of the babies slept peacefully through the entire process. But the scans did conclude that the ‘pain centres’ in their brains were in fact stimulated by the poke.
This may well lead to a re-think on pain management and relief for infants. A recent review of practice in neonatal intensive care units revealed that 60% of babies received no pain relieving medication while undergoing potentially painful procedures.
Dr. Slater says that the methodology used in the study could also help find a solution.
“It 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,” she said.