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Infant pain unaffected by sugar

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Sugar does not provide pain relief to infants, contrary to advice given in international clinical guidelines, according to new research sponsored by the Medical Research Council.

Sucrose sugar is routinely fed to newborn babies while carrying out painful medical procedures in order to relieve their distress. Guidelines recommending the practice followed several clinical trials suggesting sugar effectively reduced pain in premature and normal term infants.

The new study monitored nerve activity in the pain centres of babies’ brains and found that sugar merely has the effect of altering babies’ facial expressions, giving the impression they are feeling less pain.

Doctors have been fooled for years by changes in facial expression that lead them to think they are easing infants’ discomfort, the findings suggest.

An MRC expert said the discovery has “significant implications” for babies’ care in hospital.

Scientists led by Rebeccah Slater, from University College London, studied 59 newborn babies who were given standard heel lance pricks to collect blood samples. The procedure involves piercing an infant’s heel with a sharp blade, and is unavoidably painful.

Half the babies were given 0.5mL of 24% sucrose solution before undergoing the procedure while the rest received ordinary sterile water. During the procedure, the infants’ brain waves were measured by means of encephalograph electrodes attached to the scalp.

The study showed that activity in the pain areas of the brain did not alter when babies were fed sugar.

Leg reflex reactions that indicate discomfort in babies were also no different between the two groups.

Despite this, a pain score called the premature infant pain profile (PIPP) - based on observed behaviour and facial expression - was significantly lower in infants given sucrose.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • I cannot believe they actually thought the practice of giving sugar was indeed a pain relief. Just think about the logic, the science!
    I am aghast at the non use of 'common sense' these days !

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  • The 'science' behind the use of sucrose as a method of non-pharmacological pain relief is evidence that it stimulates the release of endorphins. Evidence as recent as 2009 shows that the use of sucrose minimises behavioural distress and improves physiologic stability. It is a bit harsh to suggest that doing things to minimise a neonates discomfort, i.e. using non-pharmacological methods that have shown to reduce crying and minimise pain cannot be seen as the ‘use of non common sense’. It is your duty to act in the child’s best interest and to minimise harm. There are pros and cons to using sucrose but as a qualified nurse I am sure the options would be weighed up, your judgement used and multiple methods utilised to ensure the infant’s pain is effectively managed.

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