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Alleviating infant pain


Baby crying

Until the late 1980s, we thought babies' nervous systems were too immature for them to feel pain. Since then, research has shown this to be wrong. We now know that even tiny premature babies can feel pain. Procedures are part of everyday life in neonatal intensive care and we try to make sure that babies get pain relief when we have to do something that might be painful. But what about the baby with bad tummy ache, headache or other ongoing pain? Recognising this sort of pain and knowing how best to treat it is not easy, especially if he or she is premature. We still have a lot to learn.


This study draws on the experience and knowledge of neonatal nurses and doctors in Coventry to help us to understand better how babies show they are in pain. Currently, we have no effective way to assess whether a baby is in pain or how bad the pain is. We hope this research will allow us to develop a new system to assess pain in babies, which will be of national benefit.

Where, when and who?

The study was conducted at the neonatal unit at University Hospital, Coventry between March 2009 and March 2011. Dr Elaine Boyle, Senior Lecturer in Neonatal Medicine, University of Leicester, led the study, together with Dr Kate Blake, Consultant Neonatologist and Jo Bradshaw, Neonatal Research Nurse, both from UHCW (University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire).

Progress so far?

Thanks to the babies who took part in the study and the nurses who are working hard to make the study a success, we have now completed the first phase. We have learned a lot about how nurses assess how comfortable babies are and have measured levels of stress hormones in several babies on the neonatal unit.

We will now start to put all this information together to produce a simple scale that we hope will make pain assessment in babies easier and more accurate. We are very grateful to parents who have allowed their baby to be part of the study.