Sugar proves helpful in managing infant pain, researchers find

Common table sugar can be used to manage pain in newborns undergoing medical procedures, according to a study by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), York University Professor Joel Katz, and scientists from the University of Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital.

The research, published in the July 1 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, shows that sucrose is an effective and safe pain management option. It is an important finding because studies have shown that when a baby’s pain is not treated effectively, it can lead to increased pain sensitivity in the short term and possibly even in the long term as well, said Katz, Canada Research Chair in Health Psychology.

“Effective pain management in infancy may help to prevent the pain hypersensitivity that might otherwise develop when pain is poorly managed,” said Katz. “Sucrose appears to be helpful in diminishing the pain from venipuncture – drawing blood with a needle – but not the pain that is caused by an intramuscular injection or a heel lance.”

Left: Joel Katz

Katz, a psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health, and the study’s lead author, Dr. Anna Taddio, an adjunct scientist at SickKids, have collaborated for more than a decade on research aimed at understanding and better managing pain in hospitalized infants.

While it is not fully understood how sucrose provides the pain relief, they believe that sucrose somehow activates release of the body’s own natural painkillers through sweet taste. It is becoming increasingly widely used with babies.

The study involved 240 babies no more than two days old. They were treated with either a placebo or a sucrose solution prior to all of the painful medical procedures that are routinely performed on babies, including venipuncture, heel-lance and intramuscular injection. The scientists measured pain by evaluating the facial expressions and physiological responses of the infants.

Half of the babies in the study had diabetic mothers. They were included because they are treated differently at birth, receiving additional heel-lance procedures to monitor their glucose levels. While it had been thought that the use of sucrose for diabetic offspring could elevate their blood glucose level, the study showed no adverse effects resulting from the sucrose solution.

Overall, the results of the study showed a modest decrease in the level of pain experienced by the newborns who received the sucrose treatment. Analyzing the procedures separately, researchers found that sucrose is only effective for managing pain caused by venipuncture, and that more work is needed to identify strategies that will eliminate pain completely.

The study was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the SickKids Foundation.