Do you know of any studies on effects of traumatic events on newborns? Can they be long-lasting? If yes, when would it make sense to think of some help (e.g., therapy)?

Situation: Three days after birth, while still in the hospital, my daughter showed signs of an infection (e.g., fever, accelerated breathing). It followed that she was put on intravenous antibiotics, a 10 day treatment. During these 10 days, a number of doctors and nurses made many attempts (sometimes even several times a day) to poke her blood vessels for the IV, while holding her still on a table, accompanied by baby's uninterrupted cry. Depending on the skill of the nurse, it would even take them 1 hour to manage. In addition, they took blood samples every day. Mom and dad were always there, talking to her, and trying to comfort her, but it was nevertheless painful (for us to watch, and surely for her to experience, at least physically, but we think also and mentally).

At 3 weeks old, baby gets fever, and she has the same bacterial infection again. Same process: 10 days IV antibiotics in the hospital, plus several other tests that required her to be still (i.e., be held still), accompanied by terrible cries. Note: She was never left alone with the health carers.

Ever since, I have noticed her distress, to say the least, when putting her on a changing table (except for when at home), on a scale (at the child health center), or similar, even if it is just me doing that, and constantly talking/singing to her to keep her distracted from the context. To the point that between 3 and 5 months I refused to weigh her at the child health center, following a 2 hour long inconsolable cry at her previous weigh in. She is now 9 months old, and although her reactions seem to have improved, they are still there. (No such reactions if she just lies on the bed, or on the floor).

I should mention that she is otherwise a happy, joyful, unproblematic baby, who seldom cries during the day. She is normally developed for her age. However, there have been periods with frequent hysterical cries in her sleep, but that seems to be related to babies' development (although I do not know if my baby has significantly more such episodes than what is considered normal).

Update at 18 months: Around 1 y.o. we couldn't notice any negative reaction to being put horizontally on changing tables anymore. She also does not seem to have any other negative behaviour that is not simply age-specific and her development is normal. So hopefully no long-lasting effects.

  • 1
    FWIW, my mother tells me I had a phobia of tables after going through some painful IV when I was an infant. According to my mother, I grew out of it in around 8-9 months. I don't remember any of it of course, and have had no phobia for tables, hospitals, doctors, or even needles for as long as I can remember.
    – learner101
    Aug 18, 2017 at 13:19

2 Answers 2


I have been looking at this as well recently. My youngest went through a lot of painful procedures as a tiny one, looking for reasons she wasn't growing. Sadly for her, in the end, they determined that she has no medical problems and simply was small, so none of it was really needed. I know that is awesome that she is healthy, that is great. It is just sad she went through so much for what amounted to just being smaller than expected. That said, I do believe it has an impact based on what I am reading and this may be of interest to you. https://hms.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/HMS_OTB_Winter11_Vol17_No1.pdf

From the article. It discusses a heightened reaction to painful stimuli, not just in infancy, but well beyond. And then goes on to talk of other ramifications like this:

These ill effects may not be localized to pain. According to Frederick J. Stoddard Jr., MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at HMS, early-life traumatic stress and untreated pain may seriously affect a child’s development, contributing to lifelong emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression, learning disabilities, and other problems in growth and development.

This is specifically about burns, which of course are far more excruciating than anything my child suffered or yours, but it speaks to ages before concrete memory (that which you can pull back up & recall the details).

Stoddard, whose research at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston focuses on the psychological reactions of severely burned young children, says his findings on PTSD provide insight into the psychological after-effects of early-life
surgical pain. His 2006 study in the Journal of Burn Care & Research found that children from 12 to 48 months of age who suffer acute burns - especially those whose burns require a long hospitalization and multiple dressing changes — appear to be at increased risk for developing PTSD symptoms.

And then goes on to talk about the importance of treating children for these types of manifestations.

Treating these children, as well as children who may have suffered early-life surgical pain, may help ward off “longer term and more damaging reactions later, including the hidden memories that have come to haunt some trauma survivors,” Stoddard says, provided that medical professionals assess these symptoms as part of routine patient care. “Psychological interventions are also important for the child,” says Stoddard, “including careful
nurturance and the involvement of parents and other caretakers. Educating caretakers about the condition being treated and the support available is very likely protective for children in terms of reducing their stress.”

  • Personally - What made me take note was that my child does not seek comfort from me when injured. Quite oppositely, she seeks to run away and hide. She is upset if I approach too closely and I have worked very hard to get her to let me into her space. I have often wondered if this is related to the fact that many of her tests were done while in my arms. She will seek comfort when hurt if her father is around, she runs to him. It breaks my heart a little that she doesn't seem me as a place to run to when you scrape your knee. It is better than it was when tiny, but she still won't come straight to me, she acts like she is unsure of me in those moments, when she acts totally at ease the rest of the time. And to be clear, I have never physically hurt her ever, not even on accident. There has been no incident that I can use to explain it. I don't spank or even slap a hand, I have never tripped over her. The only time I can recall inflicting any pain was I cut a fingernail once too close as a newborn. That should tell you how much time I have spent trying to figure out why she fears me when she is hurt. She oddly has no fear reaction to her Pediatrician at all, but he ordered the testing. He never administered anything unpleasant. The only constant in every scenario was me. So I have been recently researching if this could be why she runs. I think my next step is going to consult a child therapist to see if we could do more than we are to work on this with her.

*** Edited to add some quotes from the article as well as more info on my experience in hope both helps OP.

I am not per se worried for my daughter. I am just being informed & aware. She is a very intense child. I have older kids and I have watched lots of kids and I have enough children to compare her against to say she is far more intense than most at 3. I want to do my best to offer her the best chance in life at being happy, well adjusted, etc, as you should in good parenting. My interest in the impacts of early painful medical procedures are merely to ensure that I offer her whatever she needs to have the best life and meet all her potential. I don't think it's massively worrisome. I do think it's very smart to look into what potential impacts it can have and how to address those. I think the great news is that there is almost always something you can do to help your child optimize whatever their potential is and assist them in dealing with whatever their struggles are.

  • I fully agree with what you wrote in the last paragraph. Her dad and I also want to be informed and aware especially of possibly long-lasting effects. Now that's she's still a baby, we can just try to avoid changing her diaper in public places, for example. But should it turn out later on, e.g., in her teens that she is showing some sort of out-of-the-norm (for teenagers) behaviour, we would not exclude it possibly being connected to the traumatic start she has had.
    – iulia
    Aug 20, 2017 at 7:02

Short Answer: so long as your daughter feels safety, love, and stability at home, she'll be very capable of handling scary and unstable situations when she is grown up.

More: My oldest girl had jaundice and they must have pricked her heal around 21 times in the first 4 days of here life. One day weeks after she was born she somehow got some poop on her heel, so naturally my wife wiped it off with a baby wipe. Apparently this was quite triggering for the poor girl because she started wailing at the top of her little baby voice. She always wailed when pricked at her checkups as well. She's now three and will gladly wipe her own feet with a baby wipe so she seems to have recovered ok.

As human beings we are born wired to deal with an insane amount of pain, suffering and trauma. I mean being born is traumatic enough. I personally think that's why most baby's don't like having shirts/onesies put over their heads. It trigger's the trauma of being born. Human beings even as helpless babies are incredibly resilient, so long as we can find some love and stability some where. Making sure you baby has a loving, stable family life, is the best gift you could give her, because it will enable her to enjoy life despite the suffering that will inevitably come.

regarding the crying at night. My oldest does that sometimes too. When I ask her what happened (int he mornings after she is good and awake). She will sometimes tell me a story about snakes or having to share with her cousin, and about how it made her cry. It is possible your girl is having nightmares about needles. Most people do. Part of her growing up will be learning how to cope with nightmares. If it is at a level that starts to interfere with hers or your ability to get sufficient sleep you should probably talk to a pediatrician or child psychologist about it.

Practical suggestions: Babies learn from their parents (or who ever the primary caregivers are). To the level you are calm and composed, your child will see that and learn to be calm and composed as well. (with the caveat that we are all individuals and there will be exceptions to the rule). So be calm and with time (probably years) she will (most likely) learn to be calm as well.

  • You make some statements that I believe need a source (e.g. "As human beings we are born wired to deal with an insane amount of pain, suffering and trauma." Are you meaning to say that people can come through an insane amount of trauma unscathed? Also, the OP's question was, "Do you know of any studies on effects of traumatic events on newborns? Can they be long-lasting? If yes, when would it make sense to think of some help (e.g., therapy)?" I'm not sure you answered her question. Aug 18, 2017 at 20:08
  • @anongoodnurse: It does answer part of my question (about seeking help -- in the Practical suggestions). Also thanks Dan, personal experiences are helpful as well. My daughter is not old enough to ask her what she had been dreaming about, but if it's needles, then her night cries are a sure indication of how terrified she is of them...
    – iulia
    Aug 19, 2017 at 7:20

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