Can a baby remember trauma experienced in her or his first years?
In times past the answer was an immediate and insistent “No”.
Before about 1990 it was commonly believed that because virtually nobody can recall and describe any event from early childhood, let alone early infancy, be it happy or troubling, a baby makes and keeps no record of anything before what we can later recall and express in words.
This of course sounded very reassuring and comforting!
- The serious mistakes some parents make when a baby is very young – hey! “They leave no memory, no record, no damage.”
- Family, life and health dramas which a little one survives – “No need to worry about it affecting baby.”
- Separation from mother, adoption, foster relationships – “None of this will affect let alone harm a little one.”
- Will we have our baby son circumcised “so he looks like his dad”? “Go ahead, I’m fine, no worries!”
- My baby needs life-saving surgery but anesthetising a baby is risky – “Just go ahead, she won’t really suffer.”
- A baby’s screams (obviously from extreme pain) under the knife upsets a young theatre nurse – “Hey, he won’t remember anything.”
Evidence contrary to these soothing assurances must have been as clear and widespread as it is today. If you dare, just check out one of the YouTube videos on what happens when an infant boy is circumcised without pain control. Even when anesthesia is used the callous attitude and comments evident here will horrify. Still more amazing to us today is that it was believed by many until recently that babies not only don’t remember pain – they don’t feel it!
Besides this, hospitals until recently were “holy places”, the word “holy” meaning “separated, inaccessible”. Children under 12 were not allowed to visit, a husband couldn’t support his wife in labour, and the fear of infection meant many patients (even babies) were not visited (or touched) while in hospital.
The health and medical community was fed these “no brain, no pain” mantras in class and then recited them with the absolute authority and firmness that came with their position, especially in earlier times. Parents and patients would rarely question a doctor’s word. Doubts, even those arising from observing the painfully obvious, were dismissed. And doctors were only challenged by “difficult people”.
This situation was of course possible only in the simpler, more authoritarian, and much less informed times which today’s older generations remember well – but only Gen-X’ers and their seniors! We must remember that until fairly recent times there were often few alternatives. Pediatric medicine as a specialist field was not born until 1950, and even after that time anesthetics and pain control were often “basic” and pretty brutal compared with today. All anesthetics (even today) carry risk, and rendering a child under age 3 unconscious involves some additional and substantial risk factors.
Besides, in the past a baby’s surgery and pain relief were usually managed by people who almost always worked on older children and adults, so it is not surprising that general anesthesia was often avoided, and that the surgery was done with enough skill but often little finesse.
So the “no brain, no pain” mantras of past medical science not only suited the times but also served to help parents to cope better with a lot of the all-too-common dramas of family life, including infant surgery.
These beliefs also fitted well with another feature of those earlier times which many of the older generation may remember but still resent:
- most parents had little or no understanding of their child’s or their own psychology;
- children were “to be seen but not heard” and were too often “stonewalled” –“Just go and play!”
- many parents were reticent to talk about uncomfortable things like inner feelings, painful experiences, and uncomfortable subjects. “Let’s talk about that some other time!”
In 1945 I had an operation when 10 days old to control pyloric stenosis, and the details of that were always kept from me. In other posts I have written about how the sad but understandable ways of the past have affected me and many others who had earlier infant surgery. They did so in a variety of ways –
- some were affected and/or traumatised as babies by the relative ignorance, inadequacies and failings of medical science and the hospital regime;
- others were affected by the mantras I have discussed;
- others again were disturbed by their parents’ inability to help them understand their story and inner being.
People like the “heroes” of the history of infant surgery (whom I have highlighted in past posts elsewhere) have been crucial and foundational in challenging some of the medical world’s beliefs and attitudes of the past. They have researched the old shibboleths and shown them to be utterly wrong. They have explained how trauma and pre-verbal memories can affect even tiny babies. They have worked on effective therapies to manage the damage and bring healing and wholeness.
I am so thankful for these people’s skill, insight, courage and determination. They have changed many lives very much for the better – including mine.
[ Note: this post is edited from one originally published in December 2014 in my “Surviving Infant Surgery” blog]
– Fred Vanderbom