Anesthesia and Brain Development in Your Child

Facts About General Anesthetic and Sedation Drugs

  • Anesthesia, sedation and surgery are safer now, than they have ever been, however research in young animals shows that general anesthesia and sedation medications can cause negative effects on the developing brain of animals.
  • Various medications are used to put infants and children into a special “sleep” so they do not feel pain or have awareness during surgery and other procedures.
  • These medicines can be given by mouth, injected into a vein or breathed into the lungs.
  • These medications are used in millions of children every year to ensure their health, safety, and comfort during surgery, in the Emergency Department, in Intensive Care Units, and for many procedures. 

Additional Information for Parents and Caregivers

  • Early research in children undergoing surgery that a single, short duration exposure to general anesthetic or sedation medications in a child  less than 3 years is unlikely to have negative effects on the developing brain
  • Repeated anesthetic/surgery exposure may be associated with learning or behavior problems later in life. It is not clear if this is because of the surgery, the underlying condition or the effects of the medicines.
  • There is much more research being done, including here at Stanford, to help figure this out.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning related to anesthesia and sedation medicines for children under 3 years of age who are undergoing anesthesia for more than 3 hours, or need more than one anesthetic.
  • No specific anesthetic or sedative medications have been shown to be safer than any other.
  • Nerve blocks or regional anesthesia (spinal, epidural) may help decrease exposure to general anesthesia, but have not been proven to be safer than general anesthesia.
  • Untreated pain and stress are known to be harmful to development. Many surgeries that are being done in young children cannot wait until they are older. Children may require anesthesia or sedation to allow them to undergo necessary procedures and tests.
  • Parents and caregivers should ask for information about the planned surgery or procedure, including whether it can wait until the child is older.
  • Parents should discuss the risks of anesthesia and sedation with their anesthesiologist.
  • Stanford has world-renowned researchers working on making anesthesia and sedation safer and better for children.
  • Talk to your anesthesiologist if you have further questions about your child’s care involving anesthesia.