Premature babies and pain

  • University College Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

  • Premature birth

  • 2006-2007

The research

It is very difficult for doctors to assess pain experienced by babies, even more so when they are born prematurely. Indeed, clinical measurements of pain in particularly small babies, such as facial grimacing and changes in heart rate and oxygenation can be unreliable.

Sparks awarded a research grant to Dr Judith Meek at University College London Hospital to further our understanding of pain in babies born extremely prematurely and who need intensive care for long periods during a time when their brains are developing rapidly.

Dr Meek’s research team studied a large group of babies whose age ranged from 25 weeks gestation to full-term babies using video and infrared brain scanning techniques. Babies were studied while having routine heel prick blood tests as part of their normal care and the team were able to video facial grimacing and brow furrowing in response to pain as well as show that there were blood flow changes in the part of the brain that processes sensation. The team showed that the youngest babies had a long delay of up to 20 seconds before they grimaced, this led to a potential for pain responses being completely missed or at least underestimated in the most fragile and high risk group.


 This important breakthrough showed that babies who do not have high scores on their pain scoring scales may still be in pain but there is a long delay before they show a response.

There is concern that repeated painful experiences could have a long-term effect on babies, leading to emotional and behavioural problems later in life.  This research could help to prevent this happening and ensure that doctors and nurses are able to treat babies with the correct dose of painkillers at the right time.

Sparks funding led to a major government investment into research to improve treatment for thousands of infants in intensive care and has led to numerous other studies investigating pain in premature babies.

Dr Rebeccah Slater, a key member of Judith Meek’s team was subsequently appointed as a Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellow following the Sparks study to continue research to improve our understanding of the assessment and treatment of pain in newborn babies.

Sparks continues to fund vital research into children’s medical conditions. Find out more about our current projects or get involved in our fundraising events today.