Horrifying New Study: Babies Feel Pain Like Adults But Most Not Given Pain Meds For Surgery

Image via shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via shutterstock. Used with permission.

Well, this is horrifying.

The brains of babies ‘light up’ in a very similar way to adults when exposed to the same painful stimulus, a pioneering brain scanning study has discovered. It suggests that babies experience pain much like adults. As recently as the 1980s it was common practice for babies to be given neuromuscular blocks but no pain relief medication during surgery. In 2014 a review of neonatal pain management practice in intensive care highlighted that although such infants experience an average of 11 painful procedures per day 60% of babies do not receive any kind of pain medication.  Read More

Parents most commonly hear this canard when they’re preparing to have their boys circumcised but it applies to other procedures as well.  Parents, PLEASE be sure to advocate for your children if they are having medical procedures of any kind.  There are ways to safely manage your baby’s pain. Make sure your doc takes responsible steps to do so.  For more help in becoming a parent who knows how to trust your instincts and understand what even your littlest child is trying to tell you, check out Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to the First 3 Years of Parenthood and Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Marriage After Baby: Simcha Fisher Interviews Dr. Greg

Simcha Fisher, blogger extraordinaire and author of The Sinners Guide to Natural Family Planning is working on a piece for Our Sunday Visitor Newsmagazine on the marital changes that occur once a baby arrives on the scene.  She emailed to ask for an interview.  By happy coincidence, Lisa and I just turned in our upcoming book, Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood to Ave Maria Press.   Between that and the things we had already written on the topic  in Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids,  I had lots to say.

I’ll link the OSV article when I comes out, but in the meantime, Simcha and OSV kindly granted me permission to post our full interview here. Enjoy!

Simcha:  I’m guessing that at least some of the martial troubles you counsel people for arise after the birth of a baby. What are some of the most common problems or complaints that you hear – from men, and from women? 

Dr. Greg:  Many women complain about feeling exhausted and unsupported.   A lot of women feel pressure–whether that’s self-generated or actually put on them by their spouse or others–to get back to looking and feeling like they did before they were pregnant asap and that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t manage to get their body, house, and mood in shape after the first month.  Obviously, that ‘s a mistake.  It can take a year or more to feel normal after pregnancy and delivery, but husbands, and often the women, themselves, don’t appreciate how hard it really is to get your ducks back in a row after a baby and how normal it is to feel and be out-of sorts for months afterward.

For their part, many husbands feel lonely. Post-partum depression is surprisingly common in men.  Part of it has to do with tiredness, the disruption in schedule, and the feeling of being torn between wanting to be home with wife and baby and having to be at work, combined with a little jealousy that mom gets to stay home.  Those latter feelings often feed the “So, what did YOU do today?” questions that contribute to the wife’s feelings of inadequacy.  Some husbands also struggle with the feeling of being displaced or replaced.  It can be hard to go from having a wife take care of you to suddenly having to take care of yourself, your wife  and your baby.  That can be a steep learning curve.

Simcha:  Is it normal for a couple’s relationship to change after a baby is born? What are some of the good changes they can expect to see, and how can they nourish these good fruits? 

Dr. Greg: It is. But whether those changes are good or bad tend to depend on how intentional the couple is about managing those changes. Lisa and I discuss this extensively in our forthcoming book, Then Comes Baby:  Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood  (Ave Maria Press–Nov 2014) as well as in Parenting with Grace.     Couples who talk openly about their needs, are creative about how they meet those needs and forgiving about the challenges they face in attending to each other tend to do better than couples who keep their concerns to themselves, are rigid about their expectations, and resentful when things don’t work out as planned.

It’s incredibly important for couples to establish rituals for connecting across work, play, talk and prayer, before baby comes on the scene so that they are used to relating on those levels. Then, once the baby arrives, they need to talk openly and regularly about how those rituals need to continue evolving so they can maintain those connections.  Couples who haven’t established regular ways to connect across those four levels before the baby is born often feel like they are struggling to find ways to stay in touch with each other.  By contrast, couples who did a good job connecting before the baby comes on the scene but don’t talk about the ways those rituals of connection need to evolve post baby can become resentful that their world has been overturned and doubt that things will ever be good between them again.

Simcha: What are some of the most common mistakes or bad habits that couples can get into after a baby is born, and how can they correct them?

Dr. Greg:  Research seems to suggest that the biggest predictor of post-baby marital happiness is how dad responds.  In a lot of couples, the wife is the relationship caretaker in the early years of the marriage.  She plans the dates, suggests that they take time to talk, or pray or do some project together.  When baby comes on the scene, she becomes pre-occupied–rightly–with her new role.  If dad steps into the relationship caretaker role, doing his best to attend to his wife as well as she is attending to the baby, then the couple tends to grow closer with each child. He feels effective. She feels cared for.  Everyone feels close.

On the other hand, if dad keeps waiting around for mom to resume the relationship caretaker role and resenting her when she doesn’t, the couple will grow further apart with each child.

Simcha: What are some signs that couples are experiencing something worse than just normal growing pains? If things are really bad, how should they seek help?

Dr. Greg:  Studies indicate that couples tend to wait 4-6 years from the onset of a problem before they actually seek help.  My suggestion is that if you’ve tried to talk through things on your own and you aren’t being successful, getting help early is always better than waiting.  That said, a good sign that you need to seek professional assistance is that you aren’t happy, haven’t been happy for awhile, but are trying to tell yourself that’s “normal.”  Stress is certainly normal post-baby as is busy-ness, but marital and life distress and dissatisfaction isn’t.  At the point where you feel frustrated in your own efforts to get your needs met or connect as a couple, it’s time to seek new resources.

 Simcha: I assume you mostly work with Catholic couples. Is the strength of a couple’s faith a good predictor for how well they can work through their problems? This sounds like a softball question – like, “yes yes, of course when we are faithful, we will find life’s burdens light” – but I’m really curious, because I know that a strong religious faith doesn’t always translate easily or directly into good emotional health or strong relationships. 

Dr. Greg: You’re right.  In fact, many faithful couples who have more rigid role expectations may struggle more with birth than other couples.  If you tend to be of the mindset the God made men to do X and women to do Y and never the twain shall meet, you may tend to fail to be there for each other, take on too much for yourself, and make excuses for behavior that would be otherwise inexcusable.

Faith tends to be helpful when it is expressed, not as “rules to live by” but rather as “a call to be generous and understanding regarding each other’s needs.”  Babies have a way of stretching your comfort zones.  If your faith helps you deal with that and respond accordingly, both your faith and relationships will become healthier as you grow as a person.  But if your faith is mainly about having hard and fast rules to live by, you might not adapt as well to the unpredictability that comes with post-baby life.

Simcha: If you could give one piece of advice to a Catholic couple about to give birth to their first child, what would it be? Specifically for the father, specifically for the mother, and for the couple together?

Dr. Greg:  Other than read, Then Comes Baby?   😉  Mom should ease up on herself.   Don’t try to be anything other than what she is or the experience of being anything other than what it is.  Ask for help when you need it.  Be honest about needs and struggles and let the relationship with baby develop over time.  Be patient with yourself and the rest of your world.  It will all settle down.  I promise.

Dads need to step in and to be as present to mom as she is being to the baby.  But in addition to trying to come up with your own ideas to make her feel human again, make sure to ask what she needs.   She might feel a whole lot more loved if you consistently give her 10 minutes a lone in the bathroom than if you try to take her away from the baby for a date night.  The more you take care of mom, the more she feels truly attended to the more energy she will have left to return the favor. 

Couples should be patient with all the changes and look for little ways to connect instead of holding out for big things (dates, sex).  Concentrate on creating small moments of connection.  Find little ways to work, play, talk, and pray together.  You’ve built this life together, instead of running away from it to connect, use it!  

Parenting and the Theology of the Body– Can Babies “Self-Soothe”?—(UPDATED 4/4)

The Theology of the Body teaches us that the body has an innate self-donative meaning.  That is;  we are, literally, wired for love and connection, and that God’s plan for relationships can be discerned by prayerfully contemplating the bodies God gave us.  Science is actually backing this claim up, and is giving us some important insights into what–given this mindset–is God’s intention not only for adult pair bonding (i.e., marriage and sex) but parent-child  bonding as well.  This line of thought has significant ramifications for important parenting questions like, “How do we get our babies to sleep!”

It is conventional wisdom that infant “sleep training” teaches babies to “self-soothe.”  These are comforting ideas to tired moms and dads who are eager to be great parents and get a decent night’s sleep but what does it mean for a baby to “self-soothe” and is it even possible for infants to exhibit this skill


Proponents of self-soothing point to the fact that after several days of sleep training–which involves parents incrementally delaying their response to an infant’s night-time crying–the baby decreases the time crying and, eventually stops and goes back to sleep.  This is what happens, and it has been assumed that the baby is able to return to sleep because of “self-soothing.”  The problem is, until fairly recently, researcher never had a way to test the “self-soothing” hypothesis and that’s an important problem.

While, again, its a nice idea that would be lovely if true, infant self-soothing makes no sense from a developmental psych perspective.  For anyone–you, me, any human being–to self-soothe, two skills are required; self-talk and intentional, conscious redirection.  When you are upset, to get yourself back under control, you need to be able to 1) Talk yourself down (“Calm down, Greg.  You can handle this.  It’s going to be OK.”)  and 2) You need to be able to intentionally direct yourself to engage in some self-soothing activity (e.g, make a plan to solve the problem, do something that reduces your stress, etc).  The problem is that babies don’t have either of these skills.  Children don’t develop any self-talk capacity until at least 4yo (usually later) and although babies do have some soothing rituals like thumb-sucking, it is not known how effective these strategies are.   New research is showing that the answer is, “not very.”

Learned Helplessness and Physiological Stress

It turns out that after several days of sleep training the baby’s behavior and biology become un-hooked.  The sleep-trained child does stop crying, but research shows that the child’s stress homone level remain as high as when he was crying.  If the baby was actually self-soothing, the cortisol levels would decrease as the crying behavior decreased.  But that isn’t what happens. Instead, the sleep-trained infant’s cortisol level remains high, but the help-seeking behavior stops.  There is a disconnect between what the baby feels and how the baby acts.   In animals, we call this disconnect between the physiological stress response (i.e., high cortisol levels) and behavior, “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness is a well-established psychological fact. The classic learned helplessness experiments were done years ago and over 3000 studies later, learned helplessness is a foundational concept in the study of depression and anxiety disorders.  In the first experiments in learned helplessness, a dog was placed in a box that had a metal plate at the bottom.  A lid was placed on top of the box and a mildly painful electical shock went through the metal plate.  The dog would try to jump out of the box, but be thwarted by the lid.  After several repetitions the dog stopped trying to escape the shock. He just lay there helplessly.  This continued even after the lid was removed.  The shock would be delivered but even though the dog could escape, he learned not to try to help himself–he, literally, learned to be helpless.  Superficially, you could theoreically claim that the dog learned some mysterious way to “self-soothe” and ignore the shock, but you would be wrong.  Physiologically, the dog’s cortisol levels were elevated with the shock, but the help-seeking behavior stopped.  This is the exact same dynamic seen in sleep-trained infants and that should alarm us.

Learned helplessness actually damages the human and animal brain’s ability to process stress and is an established risk factor for depression and anxiety disorders in later childhood and adulthood.

If we take the Theology of the Body’s claims seriously,  that God’s intention for relationships is written into God’s design of our body, we need to listen to research that shows that sleep-training is antithetical to the donative meaning of the body.  Genesis tells us that “it is not good for man to be alone.”  Science confirms that this is true.  Especially for infants.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comments, especially the exchanges I’ve had with “Terri” and Dr. Berchelmann, a pediatrician and instructor of pediatrics at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

–For more information on how the principles of the Theology of the Body apply to parenting, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.





Wed 4/3 on More2Life Radio: It’s A Baby Bonanza!


Today on More2Life Radio it’s a Baby Bonanza!  As we celebrate the gift of new life at Easter, we’ll look at the joys and challenges of bringing new life into your world.  We’ll look at sleep issues, post-baby marriage maintenance, mommy care, and every other issue related to welcoming a little one to the family.

Don’t forget to respond to our More2Life FB Q of the D:  (Two-fer.  Answer one or both).  As a new parent (or when you were a new parent)…  1)  When do/did you feel closest to your baby?   2) What are/were your biggest post-baby challenges?


Listen to More2Life live weekdays from Noon-1pm E (11am-Noon C). Can’t get M2L on a Catholic radio station near you? Tune in live online at www.avemariaradio.net, listen via our FREE AveMariaRadio IPhone or Android App (Check your app store!), or catch the M2L Podcast!