How Safe Is Anesthesia for an Infant?

By Sara Ipatenco
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If your infant must undergo surgery, you're probably worried about his specific medical condition, as well as the risks that go along with any surgical procedure. Many parents panic at the thought of their baby needing anesthesia, but in most cases it's safe and its benefits far outweigh its risks. While anesthesia usually is safe, there are risks that are associated with its use in infants, and learning more will arm you with all of the facts you need to make the most appropriate and informed decision for your child.


Anesthesia is used so a patient doesn't experience any of the pain associated with a surgical procedure. The anesthesia medications work by blocking the nerve receptors responsible for sending pain messages to the brain. An anesthesiologist administers the medications and monitors the patient throughout the procedure to be sure they are working appropriately. When your infant has surgery, a pediatric anesthesiologist will do this job because she will have additional training about how to keep children safe while under anesthesia. Because of that specialized training, almost all cases of anesthesia used for infants are safe.

General Anesthesia

General anesthesia is used to put your child completely under so she's sound asleep for the duration of the procedure. When it's administered by a pediatric anesthesiologist, it's a safe procedure that allows your baby's muscles to relax so the procedure can be done correctly. The amount of anesthesia medication given to your child is determined by her age, weight and health history. Once your child is under, the pediatric anesthesiologist will monitor her vital signs constantly, such as heart rate and breathing, and adjust the medication if necessary. After the procedure is over, the pediatric anesthesiologist will discontinue the medication and your child will wake up. In almost all cases, there are no side effects. In the case of multiple anesthesia use in infants, however, there is an increased risk that your child will experience learning difficulties later in life, according to a 2009 article published in "Anesthesiology."

Regional Anesthesia

Regional anesthesia is used to numb a part of the body, such as a limb, but your baby usually will be asleep during the procedure. To numb the area, the doctor will inject the area with numbing medication, which will block the nerves and prevent your baby from feeling any pain. The doctor administering the regional anesthesia takes your baby's size, exact age and anatomy into consideration to ensure that the procedure is safe. Child-sized tools are used to administer the medication and your baby is monitored throughout the procedure to ensure that her blood pressure remains stable. According to the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, regional anesthesia can be used safely in infants, but it often isn't because babies must lay still for the procedure, and that requires general anesthesia in most cases.

Local Anesthesia

Local anesthesia is used to numb a small part of the body, such as a hand or a specific area of the skin. The numbing medication is given as a shot, creme or spray. A local anesthetic might be used to remove something from the skin, such as a wart or mole. According to a 2002 article published in "Paediatric Drugs," local anesthesia almost always is safe as long as the dose is appropriate for a child's weight and age. A doctor trained to administer localized anesthesia will watch for negative reactions and ensure that the amount of medication isn't more than what's needed.

Side Effects and Risks

While anesthesia is safe the majority of the time, there are side effects and risks to consider. According to KidsHealth, the most common side effects are nausea, vomiting, chills, shakiness and a sore throat if a tube was inserted for breathing during the procedure. Your infant might appear sleepy and disoriented right after she wakes from the surgery. These symptoms usually go away quickly. In rare cases, anesthesia can cause abnormal heartbeat, breathing problems, allergic reactions and death. KidsHealth emphasizes that these risks are very rare, and you can reduce your baby's risk by giving the pediatric anesthesiologist her complete health history and answer all of his questions as accurately as possible.