Premature babies develop increased sensitivity to pain due to the intensive-care treatments they receive after birth, a study suggests.

The impact of repeated injections, heel lances and tube feeding could endure into adulthood, according to scientists. They said that more effective pain management during the first weeks of life could help pre-term infants to develop normally.

Premature babies often show little physical reaction to such procedures, which has led to disagreements over how acutely they feel pain. However, work by scientists at University College London revealed that while pre-term infants often appeared oblivious, their brain activity revealed that they were experiencing discomfort.

The latest study, led by Dr. Rebeccah Slater, indicates that after 40 days in hospital, premature babies feel pain more acutely than healthy newborn babies at the same stage in development. Slater studied the reaction of seven premature babies and eight full-term babies in the hospital while having a heel prick test, a technique used to take blood from infants’ feet. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), which show the brain’s electrical activity or brain waves, Slater found stronger EEG traces for premature infants who had been in hospital for at least 40 days than for healthy non-hospitalized babies of the same age.

The increased sensitivity could persist in the long term, making the infants more sensitive to pain throughout life, according to the study, published today in the journal NeuroImage. Previous research has suggested that premature infants are three times more likely to develop psychiatric conditions in later life, including hyperactivity and emotional disorders.

Babies requiring intensive care have an average of 14 procedures per day, many of which are considered by clinical staff to be painful. Slater said that pain management techniques could involve the use of anesthetics, and measures such as feeding babies during procedures to soothe them.

“The aim is to make their brain develop as normally as possible,” she said.

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