Neonates as intrinsically worthy recipients of pain management in neonatal intensive care

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2 Citations (Scopus)


One barrier to optimal pain management in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is how the healthcare community perceives, and therefore manages, neonatal pain. In this paper, we emphasise that healthcare professionals not only have a professional obligation to care for neonates in the NICU, but that these patients are intrinsically worthy of care. We discuss the conditions that make neonates worthy recipients of pain management by highlighting how neonates are (1) vulnerable to pain and harm, and (2) completely dependent on others for pain management. We argue for a relational account of ethical decision-making in the NICU by demonstrating how an increase in vulnerability and dependence may be experienced by the healthcare community and the neonate's family. Finally, an ethical framework for decisions around neonatal pain management is proposed, focussing on surrogate decision-making and the importance of compassionate action through both a reflective and an affective empathy. As empathy can be highly motivating against pain, we propose that, in addition to educational programs that raise awareness and knowledge of neonatal pain and pain management, healthcare professionals must cultivate empathy in a collective manner, where all members of the NICU team, including parents, are compassionate decision-makers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)65-72
Number of pages8
JournalMedicine, Health Care and Philosophy
Early online date9 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • Empathy
  • Neonatal intensive care
  • Pain management
  • Relational ethics
  • Surrogate decision-making


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