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Can Anesthesia Hurt Brain Development?

My son may need surgery, and a friend told me that anesthesia might cause problems with brain development. Is this something I should talk about with my son's doctor?
– Matthew

Yes. Whenever surgery or a medical procedure is recommended for your child, talk with the doctor about any concerns you have and get all of your questions answered.

Before some surgeries and procedures, medical staff give patients general anesthesia or sedation drugs. The drugs put them into a deep sleep so they don't feel pain or move around during the surgery.

But repeated use of the drugs, or a single use of general anesthesia or sedation drugs for longer than 3 hours, might hurt the brain development of children younger than 3 years old, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Anesthesia given in a woman's third trimester of pregnancy also could harm the brain development of her baby.

If a child under 3 needs general anesthesia or sedation drugs, parents should ask their health care professional about:

  • risks related to brain development
  • the timing of the surgery or procedure, and whether it can be delayed without creating health problems
  • how long the surgery or procedure will last and if repeated surgeries are necessary

Pregnant women in their third trimester who need general anesthesia or sedation drugs should ask their health care professional about possible brain development risks to their babies.

Surgeries for infants or toddlers that use general anesthesia or sedation drugs for a single, brief period are not likely to hurt brain development, the FDA said. The agency made the warning after looking at study findings, but says that more research is needed.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2017

Note: All information on KidsHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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