Anesthesia and Your Child’s Developing Brain

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When your child needs a procedure or surgery, it’s very natural to wonder how the anesthesia will affect his or her growth and development. As a pediatric anesthesiologist, I receive questions from parents about the potential effects of anesthesia on young children frequently and this has been the subject of intensive research the past five years.

Anesthesia in Children

The concerns started several years ago, when infant rats, mice, and monkeys exposed to common anesthesia drugs demonstrated learning difficulties, abnormal behavior and a loss of many brain cells. This naturally led researchers to question whether human infants and children undergoing anesthesia might also be at risk.

Initial studies that looked at past records of kids having anesthesia were very inconclusive. Some showed an increased rate of learning disabilities for children receiving anesthesia under three to four years of age, while others did not. In general, studies on growing kids are very difficult to conduct, because researchers have to separate “nature vs. nurture,” i.e. the effect of a child’s upbringing and surroundings, from their in-born genetics with respect to whatever is being studied.

Large-scale, complex research is now underway worldwide to conclusively determine what, if any, long-term effects anesthesia might have on our children. Preliminary results indicate that short periods of anesthesia on infants do not seem to have short term effects on their brain development. More useful results are expected over the next 2-5 years.

Your Child’s Treatment Plan

Many parents wonder if there are alternatives to anesthesia – the majority of the time, there are no realistic options to so-called “general anesthesia,” where your child is made completely unconscious. There are certain circumstances, like for hernia repair in infants, where your child could potentially receive a numbing block, and be kept awake during the surgery to avoid general anesthesia.

So what’s the recommendation right now for your child, if she or he needs to have a procedure? The truth is, surgery is never suggested to begin with unless necessary for a child, so the official recommendation for now is to proceed, but take the time and discuss this issue with your health care team, so that you feel comfortable and involved with your child’s treatment plan.

For more information about this important and developing topic, visit, or reach out to Ochsner’s pediatric anesthesiologists at 504-842-3755, to speak personally with a member of our team.

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