Premature babies feel pain more acutely than their healthy counterparts, a study has claimed.
The Medical Research Council investigation said children born early who spend at least 40 days in hospital are sensitised to discomfort by intensive care treatments received after birth.
Researchers carrying out the study measured the brain activity of babies while blood samples were taken, finding that infants who had been in hospital for at least 40 days had a stronger response than healthy non-hospitalised babies of the same age.
Brain activity seen when both groups were gently touched on the heel showed no difference, suggesting the sensitisation of premature babies was specific to pain.
Pre-term children can spend many months in hospital, often having to undergo blood tests, tube feeding and injections.
Writing in the journal NeuroImage, lead researcher Dr Rebeccah Slater, from University College London, said the study showed that premature babies needed better pain relief.
“Our ability to measures brain responses to painful events will lead to a better and more informed approach to the administration of analgesia, and enable us to define optimal ways of providing pain relief in this vulnerable population,” she said.