One single, relatively short anesthetic exposure in infants or toddlers is unlikely to negatively impact behavior or learning, according to recent studies in animals and humans. However, anesthesia drugs can have lingering side effects on the brain.
In studies of pregnant animals or very young animals, anesthesia for more than 3 hours caused widespread loss of nerve cells in the brain. This resulted in long-term effects on memory, learning, and behaviors, according to the FDA.
In human children who had repeated or prolonged exposure to anesthesia before age 3, studies have found higher rates of learning disabilities, language and abstract reasoning deficits, developmental delays, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The greatest risk for humans is in the last three months of pregnancy (third trimester) through the baby’s first year of life, but the risk may extend to approximately 3 years of age, according to the FDA.
Anesthetic drugs are used to put people asleep so they do not feel pain during surgical procedures. The drugs are usually injected into a vein or breathed in through a mask.
There are many surgeries for life-threatening conditions that should not be delayed over concerns about anesthesia — examples include major birth defects or traumatic injuries.
However, parents should ask if procedures can be delayed without jeopardizing their child’s health. “Parents and caregivers should ask for information about the planned surgery or procedure, including the likely duration of surgery and the need, if any, for repeated procedures,” according to the FDA.