Figuring out why a baby is crying can be pretty tricky. Now scientists may have found a more reliable way of telling if a baby is in pain – by using a harmless electrode.

Rebeccah Slater, a researcher from the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Oxford, commented: “Babies can’t talk, so we need other ways to tell if they’re in pain.

“Currently, doctors use facial grimaces and squints, but they could be caused by other factors, such as hunger or the desire for a cuddle.”

Reading babies’ pain

By placing an EEG electrode (a small, flat metal disc) in the middle of a baby’s scalp, the research team were able to measure the infant’s brainwaves to see whether they were experiencing physical pain.

Initially, EEG readings were taken from 18 babies aged between 2 and 5 days old during routine blood checks. The results showed a definite brainwave spike immediately after the infants’ heels were pricked.

When the researchers repeated the test with more babies, they found that there was a clear relationship between the size of the brain signal and the intensity of the babies’ grimaces – indicating that the readings really did show that the babies were feeling pain.

They also found that using a painkilling gel on the babies heels before blood was taken resulted in a lower brainwave reading.

The experiment was equally effective with premature infants born between 4 and 6 weeks early. However, the researchers reported that 10 of 28 babies who had the heel prick test didn’t show any changes to their brainwaves.

Could brainwaves help parents figure out if their babies are in pain?

At the moment, the method isn’t reliable enough be used as a primary way of reading all babies’ pain levels. Individual differences mean that not all babies’ brains respond to pain in the same way.

While the electrode technique may not be the most useful way to tell if a baby is suffering, further research could help doctors to recognise and manage pain in their smallest patients.

Bonnie Stevens, a professor at the University of Toronto and a senior scientists at the Hospital for Sick Children, told STAT News: “I think it’s really moving the science of pain assessment in babies forward.

“I don’t think looking at EEG responses is going to replace everything else.”

“At the end of the day, we are going to need a multi-modal pain assessment for babies that is going to include both behavioral and physiological [measures] as well as something like EEG, which will pull everything together to give us a comprehensive pain assessment in babies.”