How Babies Feel Pain Might Surprise You

baby crying. Jekaterina Nikitina/Getty Images

As a labor and delivery nurse, I've watched many procedures done on newborn babies, from Vitamin K shots to circumcisions. And while it's obvious that babies feel pain, of course, it can be easy to downplay pain from a baby who may not express their discomfort in a way that we can understand. Shockingly--and very much disturbingly--I even once heard a doctor say that circumcisions done without any pain medication or anesthesia were just not that big of a deal to babies.


"See?" the doctor said gruffly as the baby settled down into a deep sleep. "He didn't even cry!"

But a new study from Oxford University shows that not only do babies experience pain, but they experience it just as adults do--and maybe even worse. 

The study only looked at 10 infants less than week old, but the methods were pretty intensive, using an MRI to scan their brains and measure their brains with different methods of stimuli. For instance, scans were taken when the babies were sleeping, lightly prodded on the bottom of their feet, and then again during painful procedures. All of the scans were then compared to adult brain scans, in various stages and including when they were in pain. 

"The findings suggest that not only do babies experience pain much like adults but that they also have a much lower pain threshold," said the University in a press release. For example, a "weak" stimuli of being prodded on the feet actually produced four times as much stimulus in the baby's brain than in an adult's.


The findings make a lot of sense, because babies brains are still developing and their systems may not be equipped to handle pain and the sensations of pains in the same ways adults can. But contrary to what we may think and no matter how resilient babies may seem to be, they feel pain and they feel it intensely.


​And as I witnessed firsthand as a nurse, unfortunately, babies aren't usually given the same sort of consideration for pain control as adults are, despite potentially undergoing many painful procedures after birth. As recently as 1980, babies weren't even given pain medication during surgery as doctors thought because their brains were not fully developed, they couldn't feel pain. Even more recently, a 2014 literature review revealed that in infants received painful procedures, such as arterial lines and IV's in a NICU setting, pain control was used only 36.6% of the time. 

More research is needed to determine exactly when babies are able to feel pain, as this research obviously suggests that pain impulses begin while the babies are still in-utero. Babies brains are developing constantly and using pain control earlier could even impact how their brains process pain later. For instance, Time revealed that baby boys who were circumcised with pain medication measured less pain with vaccinations later.


It's a scary thought to think there's so little we know about babies and how they feel pain, but for now, know this--babies do feel pain, they feel it intensely, and it's our jobs as parents to make sure that we advocate for our children to receive adequate pain relief during hospitalizations and medical procedures. 


Park, Alice. Time. (April 21, 2015). "This Is A Baby's Brain on Pain". Accessed online April 21, 2015: 

University of Oxford. Babies feel pain 'like adults.' Accessed online April 21, 2015: 

Roofthooft DW, Simons SH, Anand KJ, Tibboel D, and van Dijk M. Eight years later, are we still hurting newborn infants? Neonatology. 2014;105(3):218-26. Accessed online April 21, 2015: 


Continue Reading