Oxford study: Newborns feel pain – and even more intensely than adults

New research from Oxford University in England is breaking the silence on pain in babies.  Researchers studied ten healthy newborns who were between 1 and 6 days old by comparing MRIs of their brains to those of ten adults.  The research was previously thought impossible because babies who are awake cannot remain still long enough to produce an accurate MRI reading.  However, researchers found that newborns were docile enough to fall asleep on the MRI table with the coaxing of parents, and this allowed the researchers to obtain clear readings of how their brains responded to pain stimuli.

Babies and adults were poked on the bottom of their feet with a special rod that mimics the sensation of being poked by a pencil.  The stimulus was not strong enough to wake the babies, but almost all of the same brain regions responded to the pain in the babies as in the adults.  According to the report, “The researchers found that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults experiencing pain were active in babies.”

Even more surprising, perhaps, was the intensity of pain felt by the babies contrasted with that felt by adults.  The report continues: “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.”

Since we know that babies’ brains do not somehow magically and instantaneously develop the moment they pass through the birth canal (ultrasound imaging confirms this), we know that babies in utero experience pain just like newborns do (science has specifically shown this to be true from 20 weeks’ gestation).  This is why Texas Right to Life worked so hard to protect pain-capable preborn children from brutal late-term abortions through legislation passed in 2013.

This research also supports a growing sentiment that babies deserve to receive pain management when undergoing procedures that would be considered painful by older children.  Until recently, babies did not receive pain management for procedures we now know are excruciatingly painful for them.  Researchers hope that this new study from Oxford will assist clinicians in developing pain management guidelines applicable to newborns.  Dave Andrusko of National Right to Life reports:

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.”

Studies like this one bring child advocates one step closer to affording all children – born and preborn – the care they deserve to be shown by the medical community.