Nursing beats sugar water for easing baby's pain

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Newborns who breastfeed while doctors obtain a blood sample from a heel experience much less discomfort than babies given sugar water during this routine newborn procedure, new research shows.

“If our results are confirmed, breastfeeding during a minor pain procedure could be regarded as a noninvasive, natural, and feasible way of reducing pain in neonatal units,” Dr. Luigi Codipietro of Agnelli Hospital in Turin, Italy and colleagues conclude.

Shortly after birth, doctors sample infants’ blood via a “heel prick test” to check their blood sugar and to test for certain congenital problems. Since the recent recognition that newborns can feel pain -- and in fact may even be more sensitive to pain than older children -- several pain relief approaches have been investigated to help them cope with this and other painful procedures.

Giving babies sucrose can reduce pain somewhat, studies have shown, while breastfeeding also appears to have pain-relieving effects. In the current study, the researchers compared the two techniques in 101 full-term babies.

Newborns breastfed during the heel prick test had sharply lower scores on a standardized pain scale that uses facial expressions, behavior, heart rate and the amount of oxygen in a baby’s blood to give a pain score from 0 to 21. Most babies who breastfed scored a 3, compared to 8.5 for babies given sugar water.

Most breastfeeding babies cried for the first time during the procedure for 3 seconds, compared to 21 seconds for the sugar group. These infants also had less of a jump in heart rate, a smaller drop in oxygen saturation, and during the two minutes after the heel lance they cried for 8 percent of the time, compared to 56 percent for babies given sugar water.

A number of aspects of breastfeeding could be responsible for its analgesic effects, Codipietro and colleagues note, such as the skin-to-skin contact, the stimulation from breast milk, or holding of the infant.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, September 2008.