A Spoonful of Sugar Does Not Help…At Least Not For Newborns

September 2, 2010

Giving sugar to newborns may not have much effect on relieving pain during initial invasive procedures, according to a study published in The Lancet.

Giving sugar to newborns may not have much effect on relieving pain during initial invasive procedures, according to a study published in The Lancet.

Sucrose changes the facial expressions of some babies, which falsely gives the impression that pain is being relieved -- as demonstrated in the study by researchers from the University College London.

The current policy in many hospitals is to offer oral sucrose to newborns as a way of easing pain during invasive procedures such as collecting blood from a vein or heel lances.

The study evaluated 59 healthy newborns at the University College Hospital. The team found that activity in the pain areas of the babies’ brains did not differ whether they where given sucrose for pain relief. They found little difference between the infants’ leg reflex reactions as well, which usually indicates discomfort.

The scientists measured pain activity in the brain and spinal cord before and after the babies had undergone a routine heel lance. They used neonatal electroencephalography to measure areas in the brain. Spinal cord pain reflex was recorded with electromypgraphy (EMG). Half of the babies were given a sucrose solution prior to the lance, while the remainder was given sterilized water.

“Our findings indicate that sucrose is not an effective pain relief drug,” said study leader Dr. Rebeccah Slater, in a press release. "This is especially important in view of the increasing evidence that pain causes short and long-term adverse effects of infant neurodevelopment. While we remain unsure of the impact pain has, we suggest that it is not used routinely to relieve pain in infants without further investigation.”

The trial has significant implications for healthcare policy, said Chris Kennard, chair of the MRC’s Neuroscience and Mental Health funding board.

“With uncertainty around the role that pain plays in a baby’s neurodevelopment, this research is a vital tool for informing healthcare decision makers,” Kennard said. “Scientific advancements like these would not be possible without the support of medical research volunteers and families and scientists remain indebted to the huge contribution from members of the public.”