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Sugar-Coating a Pacifier Helps Ease Infants' Pain

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Dec. 2, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Sucking on a sugary pacifier can help relieve a newborn's distress during minor medical procedures like spinal taps or injections, says a study released in the current issue of the British Medical Journal.

"Treating pain in the newborn is essential," says R. Carbajal, of Poissy Hospital in France, lead author of the study. "Recent research has shown that even short-term pain can have lasting negative effects."

Neonatal specialists have developed strategies to alleviate pain caused by various diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, and general anesthesia is used in more aggressive procedures. However, says Carbajal, "It is essential to find simple, acceptable, and well-tolerated methods to reduce pain in these infants [who require minor procedures]."

The team studied 150 newborn babies and their pain response when having blood samples taken during the first few days of life. They used a recognized rating scale to determine whether the infants were in pain. The researchers then observed the effects of giving the babies oral sugar (in the form of glucose and sucrose solutions) and pacifiers -- as well as the effects of receiving neither.

They found that babies given a pacifier dipped in sucrose or glucose had "clinically significant" reductions in pain compared to those given sugar orally, the report says.

Determining whether babies are in pain is difficult, says Carbajal. Almost all previous studies have used crying as the principal tool to assess pain. "But, although closely related, crying is not unique to pain. ... We have to rely on reactions such as changes in behavior, modification in physiological variables, or release of stress hormones to infer pain ... facial expression, limb movements, and vocal expression," he adds.

Eventhough the pacifiers reduced the infants' pain, pain levels were still "relatively high," says Carbajal. "Therefore, we consider that although sweet solutions are effective in reducing pain in newborns, they are not perfect." The rapid onset of the effect strongly suggests that the simple presence of the solution in the mouth -- rather than ingestion -- was key, the authors added. Also, glucose is readily available in hospitals, whereas sucrose is not, they note.

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