London - Babies of first-time mothers feel more pain when having routine jabs than those of experienced mothers, a study suggests – because the youngsters can sense their anxiety about what is to come.
While new mothers may not show they are worried, their stress still has a very real effect on babies waiting for their first vaccination.
The babies express more signs of pain, even though they cannot possibly know what is going to happen, according to psychologist Dr Nadja Reissland of Durham University.
She said the empathy from first-time mothers about the pain to be inflicted on their child affects them both.
“They are thinking of how their baby is going to be hurt – it doesn’t show on their face or in their behaviour but it’s communicated to the child,” she said. “With more experienced mothers, they feel less anxious and can cope better.”
In a study by experts at the university, 50 mothers holding their two-month-old babies were videotaped during two routine vaccinations carried out one after the other.
Maternal touch, behaviour and the pain expression of the babies were analysed before, during and after the injections.
Expressions such as facial grimacing and crying were objectively coded for an overall pain score.
After each procedure, mothers were asked to estimate their baby’s level of pain.
Pain observed in all babies increased progressively during the vaccination process, with more pain in response to the first injection, followed by a lull, and then a further increase in pain with the second injection. However, babies of first-time mothers showed more pain in anticipation of the first injection than those of experienced mothers.
Virtually all the mothers overestimated the extent of their baby’s pain, the study, published in the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, also found.
Dr Reissland, the lead researcher, suggested pregnant women could be taught what to expect at parenting classes in a bid to reduce their fears. She said: “These results show a mother’s anxiety and distress is somehow ‘felt’ by the baby who in turn shows more pain.
“It is possible first-time mothers get more stressed about taking their baby for their immunisations due to the unfamiliarity of the process, and how much pain they believe their babies are in could stop them from taking their babies for follow-up vaccinations. This could result in children having incomplete immunisations.
“It is important that first-time mothers feel reasonably comfortable, particularly as early pain experiences can shape [their baby’s] response to pain later in life.”
The current immunisation schedule in the UK requires babies to receive their first vaccinations at two months.
Dr David Elliman, immunisation expert for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “Vaccinating children is extremely important.
“It’s common for children to become nervous just before doctors carry out these vaccinations, so the mother’s behaviour during this time is very important in reducing the pain felt by their baby.” - Daily Mail