Can the unborn child feel pain?

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Scientists have shown for the first time that newborn babies have a "unique" nervous system which makes them respond differently to pain than adults. In research that has far-reaching implications for the medical and surgical treatments of infants, the scientists have found that newborn children feel pain longer and more sensitively. In premature babies, the mechanism that allows older children and adults to "dampen down" the pain messages does not work properly. Until recently it has been presumed that a baby's pain system was too immature to function properly, or that they reacted in a similar way to adults, but less efficiently. Researchers at University College London have now discovered that babies' sensory systems have a unique pain-signalling mechanism, which disappears, as they grow older.

It is only in the past 10 years that it has even been acknowledged that babies and infants feel pain. Before that, babies born prematurely - after less than 30 weeks of pregnancy - would undergo traumatic or surgical procedures without pain-killing drugs. Ticky Wright, of the Women's and Children's Welfare Fund, set up to promote research into pain relief of the unborn child, last night welcomed the new research. Mrs. Wright said "I call this the 'oops' syndrome. First we were told that infants did not feel pain, then that newborn babies did not, then that a foetus did not. Each time it is looked at, the boundaries are pushed further and further. Yet masses more research needs to be done."

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