Do Babies Feel Pain Like Adults? Oxford Study Says Yes

Do Babies Feel Pain Like Adults? Oxford Study Says Yes

Do Babies Feel Pain Like Adults?

A pioneering study from Oxford University has found that babies do experience pain like adults.

Researchers also found that babies are more sensitive to pain than adults.

The ground-breaking study, published in eLife journal, used MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to study brain responses to pain stimuli.

The small sample study looked at the brain scans of 10 healthy infants aged between one and six days old. The results were compared with the brain scans of 10 health adult adults aged between 23 and 26 years old.

Babies were placed in an MRI scanner. Young infants were chosen because they tend to be sleepier and more docile than older babies, and were more likely to stay asleep (and still) in the scanner.

Whilst the baby slept, researchers lightly poked the bottom of the baby’s foot with a special retracting rod. This was to create the sensation of being prodded with a pencil. As the baby slept, the MRI scanner took images of the brain to detail the response to the stimuli.

The MRI scanner was then used to take images of adult brains when exposed to the same stimuli. The adult participants were also exposed to less gentle prods, to give more of an understanding of pain thresholds.

Researchers found that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults responding to pain stimuli were also active in the infants. The images showed that the babies responded to much gentler stimuli, implying that babies have a lower pain threshold than adults.

Lead author of the report, Dr Rebeccah Slater of Oxford University’s Department of Paediatrics said:

“…Obviously babies can’t tell us about their experience of pain and it is difficult to infer pain from visual observations. In fact, some people have argued that babies’ brains are not developed enough for them to really ‘feel’ pain, any reaction being just a reflex – our study provides the first really strong evidence that this is not the case.”

This was a small sample study including only 20 participants, so more research will be needed to find out more about how babies experience pain. This study has highlighted the need for more thought to be given to young babies undergoing painful procedures.

Another study that was published in Neonatology in 2014 found that infants in neonatal intensive care units experienced an average of 11 painful procedures each day, though over half of these infants did not receive any pain medication.

Many people mistakenly believe that babies are unable to feel pain in the same way as adults. This Oxford University has highlighted that this is not the case, and hopefully this will improve medical treatment for young babies.

Young babies are particularly vulnerable because they are unable to tell us when they feel pain. Though they can communicate by crying, these cries may often be misinterpreted as discomfort, hunger or tiredness. It is hoped that this study will be the first step in a quest to find out more and how babies respond to and experience pain.

See a clip about research into paediatric pain below.





Fiona Peacock is a writer, researcher and lover of all things to do with pregnancy, birth and motherhood (apart from the lack of sleep). She is a home birth advocate, passionate about gentle parenting and is also really tired.


    1. Without entering the debate, just explaining: one belief is that this is why you should circumcise newborn babies, as they “wont” feel it like an adult will.

      I actually wonder if babies are more sensitive to pain, because they are so new, and not used to pain or sensations like that?

    2. I do too, but as early as the mid 1980s, this was a common belief in the medical community. Babies were put through major surgeries with any type of pain relief. They went into shock so it appeared to not harm them! Of course, now those people are likely living with PTSD. Today many babies are circumcised in the US because it’s thought that their penises are not sensitive to pain until later in life. Again, these poor babies are likely experiencing shock. It blows my mind that this is not obvious to doctors and makes ne suspicious of the competence of the medical community as a whole.

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