Parental judgements of infant pain: importance of perceived cognitive abilities, behavioural cues and contextual cues

Pain Res Manag. Summer 2004;9(2):73-80. doi: 10.1155/2004/150463.


Background: Despite blatant indications, such as behavioural and contextual cues, infant pain is often undermanaged by adult caretakers. The belief that infants are limited in their abilities to comprehend the meaning of an experience or recall that experience has been used to minimize or deny the need for intervention in this vulnerable population.

Objectives: This investigation explored parental beliefs regarding the impact of infant cognitive capabilities, behavioural cues and contextual cues to their pain judgments. Particular interest was focused on their beliefs regarding the general cognitive capabilities of infants of different ages.

Methods: Forty-nine parents viewed videotapes of healthy infants, aged two, four, six, 12 and 18 months, receiving routine immunization injections and provided judgements of the severity of pain on a 100 mm Visual Analogue Scale. Upon completion of their pain judgements for each of the five age groups (two infants per age group; 10 infants total), parents completed questionnaires regarding their beliefs about the capabilities of infants in that age group and then reported the importance of the various cues utilized to formulate their pain judgements.

Results: Parents attributed substantial pain to infants in all age groups, almost twice the amount they hypothesized an adult undergoing a similar injection would experience. The cues rated as most important for judgements were similar for infants of varying ages. Overall, facial expressions, sounds and body movements were consistently reported to be most important. Parents acknowledged the development of memory and understanding of pain throughout infancy. However, these beliefs were not deemed by parents as important to their pain ratings, nor were their importance ratings directly related to the pain ratings.

Conclusion: Parents judged that infants undergoing a routine immunization were experiencing clinically significant levels of pain. However, despite generally acknowledging a developing trajectory for memory and understanding across the five age groups, parents did not indicate that a child's ability to remember and understand pain were essential features of their pain judgements. The results indicated that memory and understanding did not influence parental judgements of infant pain demonstrating the validity of the parents' self-assessments.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Child Development
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / physiology*
  • Infant Welfare
  • Judgment*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Observer Variation
  • Pain / diagnosis*
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Pain / psychology
  • Pain Measurement / methods
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires