Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Babies Remember Pain

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Babies Remember Pain

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Babies have been crying at birth for centuries but we have been reluctant to accept their cries as valid expressions of pain which will register in memory. Despite mounting evidence, the characteristic reaction of psychologists and medical practitioners to infant pain has been one of denial. Key myths about the brain have provided the rationale for painful procedures. Against this background, studies of the infant cry prove that crying is meaningful communication. Examples of prenatal and perinatal cries are examined. Evidence for the pain of circumcision is found in personal memories and research findings. A final section focuses on pain in the NICU, the delivery room, and the nursery and concludes with an appeal that all painful procedures imposed on newborns be reconsidered.

My granddaughter Bevin, at age 2, while talking about her birth experience, asked her parents, "Why did they poke me with a thing?" Her mother asked, "What thing?" "Like a pencil," she said. "They hurted me." She was probably referring to the heel stick, the routine way to take a blood sample from newborns in hospital birth. Bevin remembered the pain of it. Brenda, hypnotized at age 29, had this memory of pain in the delivery room:

Now she's scooping me up from the doctor and laying me on this cold, cold, horribly hard, metal scales. It's so straight and so hard against my back. And I'm screaming because it is so painful! It hurts so much to be on this hard thing . . . I am screaming and screaming and no one is coming. Someone put something in my eyes! It's so cold; it stings, it burns . . . I'm still screaming . . . That was as hard as I could cry! It hurt . . .

Such personal reports of pain at birth are new. Dare we believe them? Babies have been crying at birth for centuries but we have had a hard time treating their cries as meaningful. A lusty cry in the delivery room is a relief to both parents and professionals, the occasion for smiles and laughter. This is understandable but not entirely appropriate.

Instead of responding to cries as authentic communication, birth professionals have proceeded to cause pain with the conviction that pain is merely reflexive and that owing to the immaturity of the infant brain, the pain could not really matter. From the perspective of present knowledge, these key 19th Century beliefs are only myths, but tragically, they are mega myths still influencing mainstream psychology and obstetrics today.


For thousands of years, ignorance has separated us from a factual understanding of babies, an information gap that has been filled only in the last two decades. Long-standing prejudices toward babies are still visible in our attitude toward their age or size. They will become real persons when they are older or can speak our language. Overlooking the evidence to the contrary, we persist in believing that their senses are not developed and their brain unable to record memory or organize experience into meaning. Thus, newborn pain is not like our pain (Maurer & Maurer, 1988, pp 33-36, 218)-a claim used in the nottoo-distant past to discount the pain of minorities and slaves.

In modern India the cruel practice of branding infant tummies with hot irons continues in rural areas under the influence of witchdoctors. The pain is thought to be good for them (Chandra, 1988), an idea sometimes advanced in the United States in regard to birth trauma (Lagercrantz & Slotkin, 1986). Trauma is "good" because it activates endorphins and prepares the baby for real life. How can endorphins justify trauma? Experiments with rats show that when you shock their feet, their production of endorphins will shoot up as much as 600%, but is this any reason to shock them in the foot? Pain is not good for rats or babies.

It was only in the last three years that American parents discovered the longstanding practice of surgeons to operate on infants without the use of painkillers (Birth, June 1986, Letters, 124-125). …

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