Quick Facts: A Digest of Recent Findings in Psychology
Compiled and Edited by Geraldine Merola Barton, Ph.D.
Infant’s Pain May Cause Long Term Effects
Research with animals shows that pain experienced early in life can affect the development of the nervous system. Such studies raise concerns about the development of the nervous systems of human infants who are subjected to many medical tests.
At Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, researchers including Fran Lang Porter of the Division of Newborn Medicine, are asking about the effects of early pain and trauma of premature infants who undergo cutting edge medical procedures. The researchers ask, While medicine has gained powerful new tests and procedures to save neonates’ lives, have we lost sight of the long term damage that such experiences may cause?
These researchers are concerned about infants who spend their first months in a “big, bright, noisy and rather hectic” neonatal intensive care unit, where blood is drawn over and over with no topical analgesics, and invasive tests are continually performed.
Evidence suggests that early painful experience may impair a child’s ability to deal with pain later in life. For instance, Porter cites one study showing that boys who as babies were circumcised without analgesia, later had worse-than-normal reaction vaccination pain.
In another of the studies reviewed by Porter and her team, researchers exposed baby chicks to conditions comparable to a NICU's bright lights and loud noises. The chicks later showed delayed habituation (the ability to get used to a disturbance in the environment). The researchers posit that such experiences can similarly affect a human infant’s neurological and behavioral development.
While it is unknown what long term impact pain might have on an infant, according to Porter's team, medical staff may need to pay more attention to managing pain and trauma in very young patients. Porter and her colleagues suggest that NICUs can make such changes as using local anesthesia for some procedures; spacing out procedures, thus allowing infants to sleep for longer periods without disturbance; giving sugar water, which has been shown to ease infants' responses to pain; and, as some NICUs do already, dimming the lights for 12 hours to reduce environmental stress on infants.
SOURCE: Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 1999;20:44-52)