Conceptualising pain in critically ill neonates or infants

Emre Ilhan and Simon van Rysewyk


The belief that neonates or infants can feel pain is relatively recent development. Historically, major cardiac surgery was performed in some neonates or infants without anaesthesia, based on the belief that infants had immature nervous systems; therefore, they were incapable of pain, and were fatally vulnerable to the side-effects of anaesthesia. What was standard medical practice in the past is now considered medically unsound and morally unjust. Given that neonates or infants cannot linguistically describe their pain, researchers and clinicians have considered behavioural, physiological, and neurophysiological cues to determine pain in neonates or infants. Pain assessment based on behavioural cues is not an ‘indirect’ means of inferring pain in the neonate and infant because pain experience is not totally separable from its behavioural manifestations. Since pre-linguistic neonates or infants do not possess the concept of pain, in social settings involving pain, the neonate and infant expresses pain only by virtue of a courtesy extended to signs of pain by linguistically competent adults who have already mastered the practice of using ‘pain’. Thus, the aim of this paper is to describe how clinicians and researchers have conceptualised neonatal or infant pain, and what implications these may have in the study of neonatal or infant pain. Craig’s social communications model emphasises how intra- and interpersonal factors surrounding assessment of infant pain influences the caregiver’s ability to decode the behavioural, physiological, and neurophysiological expression of the neonate’s and infant’s pain. Although the neonate’s or infant’s ability to express pain through behavioural signs is an essential aspect of pain assessment, the role of pain detection falls heavily on the caregiver. In some circumstances, such as severe disease acuity, neonates or infants may not have the capacity to respond behaviourally or physiologically to pain. Therefore, it is argued, examining the caregiver’s conceptualisation of the pain is even more important in these circumstances, as it has obvious implications for pain management.

Keywords: neonate, infant, pain, neonatal intensive care unit, pre-linguistic, meaning, concept 

Read the article here.

Thoughts on “Reconsidering fetal pain” – by Stuart WG Derbyshire & John C Bockmann

Sculpture by Fabio Viale

“…we propose that the fetus experiences a pain that just is and it is because it is, there is no further comprehension of the experience, only an immediate apprehension.” – Reconsidering Fetal Pain (2019), by Stuart WG Derbyshire, John C Bockmann

I agree with this proposal.

Experiencing pain is being in an animal-like state. But, experiencing pain is not knowing that this is pain. I think experiencing pain becomes a state of knowing only if a person is a competent language user. 

A consequence of this idea is that pain experience is not always immediately transparent or lucid to the person experiencing it. Odd as it sounds, to be in pain is not to know pain. This challenges the Cartesian philosophy of mind.

Following Derbyshire and Brockman, the fetus or neonate experiences pain, but without understanding or recognition.

Emre Ihan asked me: “Do you think learning is a form of recognition? A lot of neonates pull their legs away when nurses and their parents touch their heels, after weeks of heel lancing (heel pricks for blood tests). Could this be an anticipation of pain, and thus recognition that pain is imminent…”

Compare the neonate’s behaviour with a dog walking beside a road with the flow of traffic. The behaviour of the dog conforms to our left-hand drive convention, but it does not do so because it understands that convention.

In the same way, a chicken that stretches its neck and wings as in the mating ritual of the wandering albatross is not stretching its neck because it understands, or has a conception of, this mating pattern.

Point 1. There is behaviour that conforms to a complex pattern.

Point 2. This behaviour is not explained through a conception or understanding of that pattern. The behaviour just accidentally realises part of a complex pattern. 

Point 3. The explanation for the behaviour is explained by its relation to the complex patterned whole.

A plausible explanation of the neonate’s behaviour is in terms of the survival value to groups of humans of this form of behavior. These behaviours are performed because they form part of a hard-wired evolutionary pattern, not because the neonate recognises or follows a set of cognitive rules that are an abstract description of the pattern.

Thus, the neonate, like the dog or chicken, does not engage in their patterned behaviour “on purpose.” The neonate does not intend to follow rules or apply social norms.

Developmentally, that skill emerges later when the neonate is a child and learns, if it is fortunate enough, the concept of pain.