in the Unborn and Newborn Child
NRLC President Dr. Wanda Franz
When I had my first baby forty years ago, I was told that he could not
feel or "register" pain like adults. When he was a few days old, I had
to hold him in order for the medical personnel to "stick" his heel
repeatedly with a razor-blade-like instrument in order to draw blood.
It was obvious to me that he felt this procedure as a painful stimulus.
What were the signs that told me he felt pain? First of all, he
screamed loudly. As the procedure was repeated, he tried to pull his
foot away, and the technician had to hold on tightly to the little
foot. Finally, he turned very red and sweated profusely. When the
procedure was over, I fed him and he fell asleep for an extended period.
Meanwhile, I was being told by the doctors that he felt no pain. How
could the medical personnel have seen what I saw, yet still claim that
newborn babies do not feel pain? They always implied that mothers were
too emotionally-involved to be able to evaluate, with scientific
accuracy, what we were seeing.
Although I was a mother, I was also a developmental psychologist; and I
had learned something about doing evaluations on newborn babies.
Eventually, the doctors got the scientific evidence they needed to be
able to see what I was seeing.
The problem with recognizing pain is to understand how pain works. Pain
is what one feels as a result of some kind of event from outside being
monitored by the body. The nervous system brings the stimulus into the
body to the brain where it is registered, that is, felt. We can't see
that part of the event. What we see is the response to the pain.
However, the response of the body to the pain is managed by different
nervous pathways than those used for experiencing the pain.
The ability of the individual to respond to the pain is affected by
many different things. A person may be sick, under the effect of
medications, or distracted by other events, which can limit the ability
to respond. A very important factor in the response to pain is the
developmental maturity of the individual. Babies have, what
developmental psychologists call, a "limited behavioral repertoire."
That is, babies can cry and pull away, but they can't speak and express
their anger at being hurt. Babies can't do the things that adults can
do to demonstrate that they are in pain.
In other words, all of us, including the doctors taking blood from my
baby, rely on the behavioral response of the person to determine
whether or not they think that person is in pain. It is easy to
mis-read the cues the person is giving us. The baby's behavior alone
wasn't enough to give the doctors the idea that the baby was really
Since I had my experience with my first baby, we have learned a lot
more about pain, and we have new ways of assessing its presence or
absence. For example, we now know that pain causes stress hormones to
be released into a person's bloodstream. It is possible to measure how
much pain a person is feeling by measuring the amount of hormones in
the person's blood.
That is the same stress response that causes a person in pain to turn
red and sweat, just as my baby did. There is no question that those
symptoms are further signs that he was in pain. I had assumed that,
while it was certainly unpleasant, that it would pass and be forgotten
leaving no negative side-effects. However, research suggests that the
effects of experiencing pain in infancy can be more negative than one
would have expected.
Contact: Dr. Wanda Franz
National Right to Life
Publish Date: December 22, 2010
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