Pain in babies has negative long and short-term consequences. However, as babies cannot describe their pain, treatment is difficult and pain is often under-treated.
In the late 1980s, surgery was routinely performed on babies without providing adequate pain relief and the assumption that babies do not feel pain is still present in clinical practice. It is remarkable that 2015 UK NHS Choices guidelines for tongue-tie surgery state that in small babies, being cuddled and fed is more important than the use of pain relief.
Babies who require intensive care will experience an average of 10 painful procedures per day and for the youngest and sickest babies this may go up to 50 painful procedures per day and a better solution to pain relief in babies is urgently needed.
Dr Rebeccah Slater has been awarded a grant from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to test whether morphine can provide effective pain relief in babies during such painful medical procedures.
Dr Slater and her team will use clinical pain assessment tools to measure pain in babies during an eye exam and during a clinically-required blood test. They will test whether babies who are given morphine experience less pain, and whether this improves the stability of the babies breathing and heartbeat after the procedure.
The team will also use brain-imaging techniques to observe how morphine can affect pain-related brain activity. Given that babies cannot tell us when they are in pain, this is an important new approach that will help us understand how the baby brain processes pain and will tell us whether pain-relieving drugs are effectively reducing patterns of pain-related brain activity.