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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 true?
– Matthew

Some kids who need surgery or a procedure may get general anesthesia. This puts them into a deep sleep so they don't feel pain or move around during the surgery or procedure.

It is most likely not harmful for a child to have general anesthesia once, for a short surgery or procedure. But in children younger than 3 years old, getting general anesthesia many times, or getting it for longer than 3 hours, might hurt their brain development. Anesthesia given in a woman's third trimester of pregnancy also could harm the brain development of her baby.

If a child under 3 years old needs general anesthesia, parents should ask their surgeon about:

  • risks related to brain development
  • whether it is safe to wait and do the surgery when the child is older
  • how long the surgery or procedure will last and if more surgeries are needed

Pregnant women in their third trimester who need general anesthesia should ask their health care provider about possible risks to their baby’s development.

Although anesthesia is generally safe in kids, it’s important to talk to your child’s surgeon about the risks.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date Reviewed: Jan 2, 2022

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