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.