Sweet solution for pain relief in babies

Something as simple as a diaper change after a blood test can be painful for infants. But according to a new study, an ingredient found in your kitchen cupboard – ordinary sugar – could be the answer.

Researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), the University of Toronto, Mount Sinai Hospital and York University have found that sucrose analgesia, or table sugar, reduces a baby’s pain response to routine care following a painful procedure. The study is in the March 2 issue of Pediatrics. 

The study involved 240 infants. Before having blood drawn, half of the babies were treated with sucrose and half were given a placebo. Pain responses were measured during diaper changes performed after the blood tests. The study found that the sucrose-treated infants had lower pain scores than the placebo-treated infants. An earlier study conducted by the same group of researchers, published in the July 1, 2008 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, revealed similar results in a study group of newborns – babies less than two days old. In that study, sucrose was shown to be effective in managing pain in newborns undergoing painful medical procedures. (See YFile, July 2, 2008.)

The research augments earlier findings and shows that the benefits of sucrose analgesia extend beyond the painful event to other potentially uncomfortable procedures, says lead author Anna Taddio, an adjunct scientist and pharmacist at SickKids and an associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Toronto. This is the first study to determine the effects of sucrose on routine care activities performed after painful procedures, she says.

Sucrose has been considered beneficial for procedures lasting up to 10 minutes, however its effect on subsequent procedures was not determined. As this study showed that the benefits extend to procedures following the 10-minute mark, infants can continue to benefit from the sucrose without the need for additional doses.

While the underlying mechanism responsible for the sustained benefit of sucrose is not known, the study has important clinical implications – that sucrose may be recommended for caregiving procedures that follow painful events, said Taddio. Additional studies are needed to determine the underlying mechanisms responsible for the pain-relieving and calming actions of sucrose. The effectiveness of treating newborns with sucrose in other situations must also be investigated.

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