Sweet taste comforts babies during injections

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Sugar may trigger the release of pain-relieving chemicals in the body that have an analgesic effect.
Sugar may trigger the release of pain-relieving chemicals in the body that have an analgesic effect.

Fictional character Mary Poppins may have been correct when she sang “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” at least when it comes to injections for babies, according to a new systematic review published recently.

The researchers found the sweet taste of sugar may provide some comfort for babies during immunisations.

One of the authors of the study, Dr Jann Foster, from the University of Western Sydney’s School of Nursing and Midwifery says the systematic review of 14 published clinical studies found babies did not cry for as long if they were given drops of sugar solution before injections.

"In the first 18 months of their lives, babies may have as many as 15 injections," Dr Foster said.

"Current medical science is unable to say for certain whether babies feel pain in the same way as older children and adults, or whether they are simply unable to express it. However, there’s no denying injections and other medical procedures that puncture the skin cause discomfort and can make babies cry."

Dr Foster said one simple alternative that is now widely used is the use of a syringe or dropper to put a few drops of a sugary solution in a child’s mouth.

"Sugar may trigger the release of pain-relieving chemicals in the body that have an analgesic effect," Dr Foster said.

The researchers reviewed data involving a total of 1551 infants aged between one month and a year. Most studies compared sucrose, given two minutes before immunisation, with water.

Overall, babies given the sugary solution cried for a shorter time than those given water. However, individual studies used different pain measures, making it difficult to conclude that sugar solutions actually reduced pain.

Lead researcher, Manal Kassab of the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid, Jordan said: "Giving babies something sweet to taste before injections may stop them from crying for as long."

"Although we can’t confidently say that sugary solutions reduce needle pain, these results do look promising."

Dr Foster said an earlier review showed that sugar reduces the effect of painful procedures in newborn babies.

The latest results have encouraged the researchers to now examine whether a more concentrated dose of sugar could reduce the discomfort in older and larger babies aged 6 to 12 months.

"We need to know what is the most effective concentration of sugar to have a similar comforting effect on older babies who can receive up to three injections in a single visit," Dr Foster said.

"Vaccinations can be stressful for parents. Anything reduces the discomfort for both babies and parents is a good thing."

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