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  Home  > The First Year  > Myth: The Newborn Has no Sensation, Emotional Affect, or Ability to Feel Pain or Pleasure

Myth: The Newborn Has no Sensation, Emotional Affect, or Ability to Feel Pain or Pleasure

Fact: Newborn babies experience discomfort, pain, and shock in the same way adults do, and have the same range of emotions as adults. Within a few weeks of birth babies can be made angry and even depressed by what happens to them - from the routine use of numerous painful and frightening "just-in-case" tests and procedures, to separating them from their mother.

In the early seventies pediatrician-researcher T. Berry Brazelton conducted several studies were conducted to determine if newborns could feel depressed or hopeless. A heartrending series of videotaped sessions showed that babies have very strong reactions to not having their needs met. Each baby was placed in an infant seat so it could see nothing but its mother's face directly in front of it. Mother was instructed to maintain a completely blank expression, evidencing no emotion or response, no matter what her baby did. Each baby can be seen trying to elicit a response from its mother, and failing to do so, trying even harder. After minutes of making all kinds of faces and trying to make eye contact, each baby finally reaches its level of tolerance and begins to look away from the mother, finding it too difficult to continue the effort with no response forthcoming. The baby eventually turns away from its mother's face. Then it turns toward the mother again and tries again to get a response. Each time it turns away for longer and longer periods. Finally, each baby slumps down, drops its head, and shows all the signs of hopelessness. By the time an infant is four-weeks old, emotional reactions are clear. The baby's behavior is a language in itself. It tells you when they are beginning to get upset, when they are becoming discouraged, when they are overwhelmed by too much stimulation.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the myth persists--even amongst physicians-- that young babies feel no pain. Today it is known beyond any shadow of doubt, that the pathways for the perception and transmission of pain are well developed even before the unborn leaves the womb. Yet major surgeries are performed on newborns with minimal and sometimes no analgesia, although the use of anesthesia could mitigate, perhaps even prevent, damage. Severe or repeated pain also assaults the brain. Pain can alter the structure of the nervous system, permanently affecting perceptions, coping strategies, and emotional status throughout life. It appears a similar assault to the brain takes place under conditions of stress. Given that brain plasticity is highest in the period following birth, it would be expected that repetitive exposure to pain or stress have more profound and permanent effects on brain development that would similar experiences later in life. Not only do babies feel pain, they remember it.

Early experiences, positive or negative, in the pre- and perinatal period can have lasting affects, leaving traces on the neural pathways of the brain and affecting the ways in which we view ourselves, our mothers, and our world. They become the basis of many of our behavioral patterns as adults. Knowing that babies can feel pain, sadness, and fear makes it impossible to deny that much of current maternity and newborn care is likely to cause trauma to most babies. Yet many psychotherapists persist, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in seeing young children as primitive, aggressive animals motivated only by the satisfaction of basic needs.

My experience is that the majority of medical doctors regard the newborn, and needless to say the unborn child as essentially mindless and insensate. And... many of them even doubt that babies can feel pain. Obstetricians in particular often vehemently oppose and deride the findings and research from the world's leading laboratories about unborn and newborn babies. - Thomas Verney, MD

If we are to avoid substance abuse, depression, and violence; if we are to populate this world with healthy human beings, we need to take great care in prebirth and in the early hours and months after birth.

That is when the brain is forming new synapses and dendrites; its communication system is developing that will allow the child to be more than competent in many spheres, physical, artistic, and intellectual....

I am impressed by... how simple it is to accomplish.... It is far easier than building prisons and mental hospitals to take care of the errors we have already made in child rearing. What most of us write about is how to fix the compensating mechanisms of early lack of love. We fix the migraines, the rapist, the drug addict and the voyeur, the hypertensive, and the teethgrinder, the anger out of control and the depressives. We need to start addressing causes before there is a deviated, abnormal brain system that forces deviated behavior. - Arthur Janov

Given what we know, how is it that we are continuing to do what we do?

We live in denial about what babies experience for two reasons. If we were to look at babies and allow ourselves to feel what they are feeling when they appear to be in distress from things we do to them, then we would not be able to continue doing what we do. Second, if we stopped denying a baby's capacity to suffer, we would then have to face the feelings we carry deep within ourselves of the trauma we experienced during our own birth and infancy. - Suzanne Arms

Are we willing? For the sake of our children? For the healing of our world?


Suzanne Arms, Immaculate Deception II: Myth, Magic and Birth
Arthur Janov, The Biology of Love
Marshall Klaus, Nurturing the Mother
Joseph Chilton Pearce, Magical Child*
Thomas R. Verny MD, Preparenting: Nurturing Your Baby from Conception

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