The Simple Way You Can Prevent Pain In Your Baby

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I once assisted with a procedure for a baby while the doctor quickly finished her work. The doctor's policy was not to use pain medication on the baby at all because she believed the medication interfered with the procedure and caused more complications than it was worth. 

Cringing, I had to look away because the baby started howling immediately. "Don't you think that it hurts the baby?" I asked her.

She shrugged her shoulders. "Probably, but it's over so fast that it doesn't matter," she replied. 

Once she was finished, I bundled the baby up in a swaddle and gently rocked him. Every fibre of my mother's heart (I had my own babies at home at the time!) wanted to comfort the baby in some way and when I returned him back to his parents, I encouraged the mother to breastfeed him immediately. I had noticed the babies usually calmed down more quickly after a painful or stressful test or procedure if the mother nursed the baby right away. It seemed to comfort the babies and honestly, it helped the parents too, to be able to "do" something -- anything -- to try to help comfort their little one.

Turns out, that instinct we have as parents to try to comfort our babies isn't just a natural reaction, but it's actually been scientifically proven to reduce pain in infants. 

How Babies Feel Pain

A new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) focused on looking at how babies experience pain at different ages and the best ways to reduce pain in babies.

Unfortunately, the group of babies that we don't know the most about -- premature babies -- is also the group that receives the most painful treatments and tests, since they are frequently in need of complicated medical care. 

As a nurse, I definitely have seen those procedures first hand. In the first few minutes of life, a baby can be poked and prodded completely unexpectedly.

If the baby needs blood sugar testing, for example, that baby might receive a Vitamin K shot and a poke to the foot, all within a few seconds of each other. And those tests would be all totally "normal," not anything unexpected or unusual, like a sick baby would need. 

Unfortunately, the study by the AAP found that in general, most babies who are undergoing painful procedures only receive analgesic (pain relief from medication or other sources) about half of the time. Ouch!

Why Pain Relief Is Important

The AAP explains that reducing pain in babies is super important, not just for the baby's comfort, but because pain has long-term effects. Pain, especially if it's consistent in those first few weeks of life, actually permanently changes how a baby's brain develops, especially in the stress response and pain receptors of the brain. 

And obviously, it's so hard to know when a baby is experiencing pain and distress, because, well, babies can't tell us. 

How You Can Reduce Your Baby's Pain

No matter what your baby's age is and no matter what exact procedure your baby is getting, there are a few incredibly simple ways that you can significantly reduce your baby's pain levels before, during, and afterwards.

You can:

  • Breastfeed your baby, if possible, during the procedure, but if not, immediately afterwards
  • Swaddle your baby
  • Offer your baby a pacifier or even your clean finger to suck on during the procedure, as sucking helps reduce pain
  • Holding your baby in a flexed position with arms close to the body -- this is a special position that reduces pain
  • Practice infant massage
  • Do skin-to-skin care
  • Gently talk to your infant while stroking or massaging the face or back (this is called sensorial stimulation)

​You can also combine any of these strategies to reduce your baby's pain even more. While we learn even more about how babies experience pain and how to best help them, the good news is that many of the things that seem to come naturally to us as parents to soothe our infants are backed by science to help reduce their pain. 

References:

The American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016, February). Prevention and Management of Procedural Pain in the Neonate: An Update. Committee on fetus and newborn and section on anesthesiology and pain medicine. Pediatrics, 137(2). Accessed February 12, 2016: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/137/2/1.61. 

 

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