Babies can be traumatised very early

My parents thought I was a sensitive child, and I’ve always wondered what caused them to say that.

Life has taught me that I am indeed sensitive, and when I look up what that might mean I find a lot of valid adjectives!  Yes, I am thin-skinned and can be secretive, considerate and sometimes difficult, and I hate conflict and can brood… and brood.

Why do I mention this here?  I have often wondered why I seem to be more easily upset than my parents and siblings, just as I wonder why I have struggled so long in other areas of my inner life.  Many of these private and sometimes bizarre thorns in my body are typical signs of trauma.  And the only trauma I have experienced is something I cannot remember although it was certainly an ordeal for my parents as it must have been for me: my infant surgery long ago for pyloric stenosis.  The starvation and dehydration that led to my operation, the 1940s surgical techniques, the extended separation from my mother, having deeply scorched parents… it would be hard to believe that none of this affected me then and since.

Only in recent decades has it been recognised and published that infant and childhood pain and physical and emotional deprivation can, although not consciously remembered, have long-term effects on our total well-being that are characteristic of post-traumatic stress.  Are my sensitivity and some of my other hurts and struggles part of this undeniable but largely shrouded part of my life?

Pain and its effects in the human neonate and infant was the title of a challenging and practice-altering article written by Drs K J S Anand and P R Hickey in a November 1987 issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.  In very brief, these men showed that pain perception and pathways are well developed before birth, and that although pain and other trauma are not remembered as they are in later life, they conclude that “current knowledge suggests that humane considerations should apply as forcefully to the care of neonates and young, nonverbal infants as they do to children and adults in similar painful and stressful situations.”

In an article in a 1997 issue of Pediatric Anesthesia, a British Professor of Child Health acknowledged that thinking about pain and trauma in infancy and early childhood had changed (between 1940 and 1996) and must continue to change.

An American woman has brought together her own experience and others’ observations and research on the effects of violence at birth, both immediately (the baby grimaces and screams) and in even more tellingly later life, as some crime statistics seem to show.

The experience of some parents as related on several Forums underlines the reality of babies being aware of pain and other stress.

Annette wrote:
my son is 7 months and the last few weeks has been unbearably grumpy.  He will throw a paddy that can last for hours and Im starting to feel at the end of my rope…  He was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis at 4 weeks during which time he was constantly cuddled and cossetted, as you can imagine!  He has been physically fine since the op but noticeably more demanding and this has gotten considerably worse of late.  He can’t quite sit up unaided and has been trying to crawl for the last six weeks.  However, he’ll be on the floor for just five minutes before he gets frustrated and kicks off.  Admittedly, the one thing that usually works is to give him a cuddle, but I can’t do this all the time, I have a 2½ year old daughter who also needs my time, help!

Noble’s Parents wrote:
Can anyone give us advice on helping our 4 month old child after he had a surgery?
the story goes: He got sick and was hospitalized with a virus, but what they failed to realize was that he actually had an intussusception.  So it was diagnosed EXTREMELY LATE, and he was septic and after being transported to a GOOD hospital for surgery, they were able to stabilize him and give him the surgery he needed.  He spent 2 weeks in the PICU recovering not only from the surgery, but mainly from being septic.
So we’ve brought him home, and he SEEMS to be back to his happy self, except with some major differences.  Before the surgery, we were very lucky to have a baby who only cried when he was hungry, tired, or overstimulated.  Now he seems to be cranky VERY easily, and he bounces from being extremely agitated to being happy.  And where he once was sleeping six hours at night, he now wakes up ALL THROUGHOUT the night, fussy and crying.
He was sleeping in his crib, but we’ve been having to bring him into the bedroom with us, but even then he has the same patterns.  And his eating is very much like a grazing child.  Where before he would eat til he was full, he now only eats for a short amount of time.

Understanding the cause of my PTSD battles and working through them, alone and with others who have travelled the same road, have greatly helped my healing.  I readily recognise that my PTSD is mild compared with what some of our traumatised military suffer.  But only I can deal with my disturbing pain, which for some has included severe depression and suicidal episodes.

How grateful I am for the people I have mentioned in this and previous posts: they have bravely brought their knowledge and experience to bear on the issues of infant pain and trauma, and have taken on and successfully challenged the medical establishment.

The result of this and of improved medical techniques and resources means that the incidence of the kind of trauma I and others have suffered will continue to reduce.

2 thoughts on “Babies can be traumatised very early

  1. Wendy

    Thank you for sharing all this wonderful information, including references to articles and real-life testimony. I think it’s going to take an accretion of such material and one day, like the hundredth monkey scenario, the weight and reality of what you write about – PTSD from invasive medical procedures administered without proper analgesia and from hospitalizations that separated infants from parents – will reach the necessary mark whereby society will be convinced that infants and neonates feel pain and must be treated humanely by the medical profession and other institutions of human care.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    We are all very grateful that infant surgery is normally a world away today from what we went through: much, much more and better pain management, new surgical techniques, minimal hospitalisation, greater awareness of parent and parenting issues. All this despite the fact that by all accounts too many doctors are still all-too-human.
    So I have good reason to expect that ptsd resulting from early surgery will become much less common as today’s generations grow up.
    With you I am also convinced that there is a substantial but hidden group of people among us who without being aware of it live troubled and/or disruptive lives because of unrecognised ptsd which has resulted from very early and therefore usually dismissed trauma.
    You and I will continue to do what we can to raise the level and depth of awareness of this pain.


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