When Did Doctors Start Using Anesthesia on Babies? Medics Thought They Couldn't Feel Pain

A TikTok video of a doctor claiming that babies were not anesthetized during medical procedures until the late 1980s has been viewed 1.5 million times, and was followed by a spike in Google searches on the topic.

Dr. Karan Raj, a doctor with the U.K.'s National Health Service who has over four million TikTok followers, shared the video on Saturday. The video was followed by a surge in Google searches asking for information on when babies were first anesthetized, according to the Google Trends analytics tool.

Dr. Raj, who also has 260,000 followers on Instagram in addition to his 4 million TikTok followers, recently told Newsweek: "I started my Tiktok to combat misinformation and inaccuracies that were circulating about COVID and the vaccines throughout the pandemic and I quickly realized people were interested in this and general health and medical knowledge.

"The response to the videos have generally been positive with lots of messages from younger viewers saying they've been inspired to pursue a career in healthcare or that they've changed some habit or their life in some way after watching my videos."

When did doctors start anesthetizing babies?

The belief that babies' nervous systems were undeveloped and they therefore could not feel pain meant they were not provided with anesthesia as standard practice. Instead, babies were administered muscle relaxants to stop them from moving during invasive procedures.

The belief was the result of years of inadequate studies, many of which suffered from the fact that clinicians struggled to understand the differences in pain responses between fetuses and adults, with this misunderstanding carrying over to newborns.

This was compounded by the fact that studies in the 1940s had incorrectly stated that babies lacked the capability to feel pain after they seemed to be unresponsive to pinpricks. This was later explained by a failure to correctly interpret infant body language.

This wasn't the only reason painkillers were withheld from babies, however. Physicians also had concerns about the safety of such medical interventions, fearing that giving strong anesthetics to infants may kill them, especially those that were seriously ill.

Though many hospitals had begun administering anesthesia to infants on the operating table as early as the 1970s, surveys of medical professionals conducted as recently as 1986 indicated that infants younger than 15 months were still receiving no pain relief during surgery in many hospitals across the U.S.

It was in 1987 that the tide against this practice began to change and the medical profession started to listen to mothers who insisted their infants could indeed feel pain.

In that year, a study that appeared in The Lancet concerning the testing of fentanyl on infants undergoing surgery showed that the opioid, which is similar to morphine, reduced the stress response in babies undergoing surgery.

It was also in 1987 that the American Academy of Pediatrics formally declared that it was unethical to continue to operate on infants without the use of anesthetics.

The statement which was jointly approved by the American Society of Anesthesiologists claimed there was "an increasing body of evidence" that newborns demonstrated negative responses to surgery that could be relieved by painkillers.

The New England Journal of Medicine added to this debate in November that year, stating in an editorial: "Physicians can no longer act as if infants were indifferent to pain. Neonatalogists, anesthesiologists, and surgeons must join with parents to guarantee that the best is done for newborns and to ensure that they are kept as free of pain as possible."

This article has been updated with comment from Dr. Karan Raj.

Newborn Baby
A stock image showing a newborn baby girl. Prior to the 1980s, children as young as this would often undergo surgery without anaesthesia in most hospitals across the U.S. Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images/GETTY