| 9.3°C Dublin

Babies can feel pain while in the womb

Babies begin to recognise pain just before they are born, a study has shown.

They learn to tell the difference between pain and touch from around the 35th to 37th week of pregnancy, researchers have discovered.

Scientists measured the brain waves of 25 normal-term and 21 premature babies to look for differences in activity.

As the electroencephalograph recordings were made the infants had samples of blood taken by lancing their heels, a routine standard procedure.

Among premature babies, the heel lances produced general bursts of electrical activity in the brain. But after 35 to 37 weeks the babies' response switched to localised activity in specific brain areas.


This showed they were perceiving pain stimulation as an experience separate from touch, said the scientists.

Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi, from University College London, who led the research published in the journal Current Biology, said: "We are asking a fundamental question about human development in this study -- when do babies start to distinguish between sensations? In very young brains all stimulations are followed by 'bursts' of activity, but at a critical time in development babies start to respond with activity specific to the type of stimulation."

The findings may have implications for the treatment, care and development of premature newborns, according to Dr Fabrizi.