Pain is Ageless: Study Shows Newborns Process Pain Much Like We Do

Article by Becky Errico | 513 words

Baby Pain


Pain is universal: we know that. However, it was long believed that babies, especially newborns, didn’t process pain the same way adults did because their minds weren’t developed enough yet. As Time magazine explains, the babies’ responses when they were poked or pricked were thought to be merely muscular reactions. But those ideas are changing now that researchers at Oxford University did a study involving fMRIs on newborns and adults.

A Study on Newborns, Adults and Pain in the Brain

The researchers put ten newborns (one to six days old) and ten adults (23 to 36 years old) under an fMRI scanner. The babies were still so young that many were asleep during the scans, as Science World Report explains. The researchers poked the participants’ toes and watched what parts of the brain lit up. Not to worry, though: the pokes on the newborns were kept mild enough that the babies slept through them. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the babies’ brains lit up a lot.

There are twenty parts of the brain that light up in an adult when they’re processing pain. With the babies in this study, eighteen of those sections lit up during the testing. Rebeccah Slater, who is part of the research team and an associate professor of pediatric neuroimaging at Oxford, is quoted in Time as saying that the newborns’ brains were more developed than she originally believed:

“I might have thought that some information might have gone to the sensory areas of the brain—telling the baby something was happening on the foot, for example—but I didn’t necessarily think it would go to areas more commonly involved in emotional processing such as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is thought be involved in the unpleasantness associated with an experience,” says Slater.

The newborns’ brains may have lit up almost as much as an adult’s, but their brains still show many signs of infancy. Slater also found out that the babies’ brains tended to activate widespread sections in general, whether they were processing pain or just sensory stimulation, Time explains. Also, their brains are still trying to understand the intensity of each stimulus. Based on current research, everything feels equally as strong to them.

Minimizing Pain in Newborns

These findings have practical implications to keep in mind. After entering our world, some newborns need surgery or other difficult procedures. A 2014 review of the neonatal pain management for intensive care found that infants go through eleven difficult procedures a day. And the majority of those, 60 percent, have no pain medication at all.

This new study obviously suggests that pain needs to be managed more carefully in newborns. In a statement to The Huffington Post, Slater says, “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.”

Understanding what goes on in a newborn’s brain is important since they can’t speak for themselves. We need to make sure we’re giving them the care they deserve.

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