Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Babies Don't Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine*

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Babies Don't Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine*

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: During the 20th century when medicine rose to dominate childbirth in the United States, it brought with it a denial of infant pain based on ancient prejudices and scientific dogmas no longer supportable. The painful collision of babies with doctors is seen in neonatal intensive care, infant surgery without anesthesia, painful obstetric routines, and genital mutilation of newborn males. This presentation includes a historical review of experiments on infant reactions to pain, the persistence of medical practices causing pain, and speculation about the reasons for professional indifference. (110 citations)


For centuries, babies have had a difficult time getting us to accept them as real people with real feelings having real experiences. Deep prejudices have cast a shadow over them: babies were sub-human, prehuman, or as Luis deGranada, a 16th century authority put it, "a lower animal in human form."

In the Age of Science, babies have not necessarily fared better. It may shock you to consider how many ways they have fared worse. In the last hundred years, scientific authorities robbed babies of their cries by calling them "echoes" or "random sound"; robbed them of their smiles by calling them "gas"; robbed them of their memories by calling them "fantasies"; and robbed them of their pain by calling it a "reflex".

Before this century, newborns found themselves in the hands of women: mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and midwives, but in the 20th century, infants collided head-on with physicians, typically male physicians. In the collision, infant senses, emotions, and cognitions were usually ignored. Doctors eventually gave serious attention to the pain of mothers but not to the pain of infants. Pediatricians and obstetricians created painful routines which continue today. We must try to understand why.


Against a background of general (scientific) ignorance of infant behavior, experiments were undertaken as early as 1917 at Johns Hopkins University (Blanton, 1917) to observe newborn tears, smiles, reactions to having blood drawn, infections lanced, and reactions to a series of pin-pricks on the wrist during sleep. In these experiments, the first of many, infants reacted defensively. When blood was taken from the big toe, the opposite foot would come up at once with a pushing motion against the other ankle. Lancing produced exaggerated crying, and pin-pricks during sleep roused half the babies to move the hand and forearm. Rough cleaning of the back and head to remove vernix provoked vigorous battling movements of the hands, frantic efforts to crawl away, and angry crying. Psychologist Mary Blanton concluded, "the reflex and instinctive equipment of the child at birth is more complex and advanced than has hitherto been thought."

Although these results were unequivocal, this line of experimentation continued at Northwestern University and Chicago's Lying-in Hospital (Sherman & Sherman, 1925; Sherman et al., 1936) where newborns were stuck with needles on the cheeks, thighs, and calves. Virtually all infants reacted during the first hours and first day after birth, but the trend, researchers noted, was toward more reaction to less stimulation from day one through day twelve. This finding suggested that at birth, newborns were not very sensitive but gradually became more sensitive. What the Sherman's failed to tell us was that all mothers in the study had received anesthetic drugs during labor and delivery. They took no account of the effect on the babies. For the missing information, we are indebted to psychologist Daphne Maurer (Maurer & Maurer, 1988, p. 40.)

The Sherman's discovered that infants would cry in reaction to hunger, to being dropped 2-3 feet and caught, to having their heads restrained with firm pressure, or to someone pressing on their chins for 30 seconds (Sherman, 1927; Sherman et al., 1936.) Babies tried to escape and made defensive movements of the arms and legs, including striking at objects to push them away. …

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