In the past, it was widely believed that babies don’t really “feel” pain as their central nervous systems are probably not developed enough to be able to process and respond to painful things. A new study has challenged this belief, and gives much needed insight into the nature of the pain experience in infants.

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The study found, infant brain activity triggered by pain is exactly like what we see in adults, conveying that our experiences of pain are similar. These findings have critical ramifications for pain management strategies in this population and necessitate a re-evaluation of present guidelines on how to alleviate pain in infants. The study has been published in eLife.

It’s quite easy to detect adult pain (the “ouch!” usually gives it away), however, studying pain in infants is relatively harder. When babies get hurt, they cannot convey it, and it’s also tough to discern between pain responses and reflex reactions. Moreover, using techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study brain activity needs participants to lie extremely still, and babies tend to wriggle around a lot.

Therefore, our knowledge about pain in infants has been lacking, and for many years it was assumed that they lack the faculty to experience the unpleasant components of pain. Pain management strategies in the past were pretty different for adults and infants, and even now a few guidelines recommend that certain procedures, even some minor surgeries, be performed without painkillers.

Anyways changes are in the offing, thanks to a detailed new study that set out to compare brain activity in response to pain in babies and adults. Scientists from Oxford University conducted a study, in which the participants included were infants aged between one and six days old and 10 healthy adults between the ages of 23 and 36. All participants were put inside an MRI scanner, and to ensure that babies stayed still. The were encouraged to sleep by their parents.

Next, adults as well as the infants were exposed to a painful stimulus through a poke to the foot, that apparently feels like a pinprick. The highest force applied to the infants was s four times smaller than used on adults, to cut risk of tissue damage. Next, brain activity was measured in both groups, but adults were also asked to convey their pain by speaking about it.

18 of the 20 regions found to be active during pain in the adult participants, showed activity in the infants. Besides, the greatest force applied on infants, mirrored the activity observed in adults when a force four times as great was used. These findings show that infants and adults feel pain in similar ways; furthermore, it indicates that infants have a significantly lower pain threshold.

“Thousands of babies across the UK undergo painful procedures every day but there are often no local pain management guidelines to help clinicians,” says lead researcher Rebeccah Slater. “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.”