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Do Newborns Need Sugar Water for Pain Relief?

baby in bassinet

“Wait, what is that?”

That’s what came out of my mouth, in a nicely polite voice.

In my head, I ninja-chopped the nurse’s hand, sending whatever she was trying to feed my 12-hour-old newborn flying across the room, and cried in my fiercest mama bear voice, “Don’t put anything in my baby’s mouth without my full and informed conseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeent!”

The nurse explained in a nonchalant voice, “Oh, it’s just sugar water. Research shows it helps manage the pain of the heel poke.”

“Oh, no, thank you,” I said.

Ninja-chopping in my head again.

Not 60 seconds before, the pediatrician giving Baby Jonathan a check-up had detailed some facts about the Vitamim K shot, including how K is created in our systems by the bacteria in our guts. He explained that newborns are born with zero gut bacteria, and over the first week of life, the gut is populated by the bacteria that will reside there as the child’s natural flora.

I thought, “Seems pretty important what Mom eats while breastfeeding. More yogurt!”

It makes absolutely no sense to me to give an 8-pound infant sugar, when he’s only getting a teaspoon or two per meal in colostrum. I’m all about helping my darling avoid pain, but to risk feeding the bad bacteria with sugar in a completely empty gut is a risk I’m not willing to take.

Besides that, John slept without a single peep through the entire heel-poke-squeezing-out-blood-for-two-full-minutes experience.

So I guess he didn’t really need the sugar water.

More ninja-chopping, just because it’s fun to visualize.

Why is White Sugar Bad for You, anyway?

Twelve hours later, I was ready to decline what I learned is called Sweet-Ease (which sounds just like “Sweeties,”) the routine administration of sucrose (white sugar) and water to my newborn when he had another heel poke.

It just goes to show that even when you have a pretty strict birth plan in place and think you’re ready for everything, you still should keep your newborn with you at all times and don’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” if something is happening that you don’t understand.

I don’t want anything going into my newborn’s mouth or bloodstream without understanding exactly what it is and what it’s for.

Just keep the ninja chopping in your head, okay?

What do you think about this relatively new “routine?” Worth it, dangerous, or somewhere in between?

UPDATE: I can’t expect you to read through all the comments, but there’s some pretty wild discussion down there, from the folks who think I’m crazy to even question my child’s pain, plenty of agreement, a few that say I’m a mean person who would actually hit nurses, and then a nurse with 33 years’ experience who references an article that shows sugar doesn’t work and may cause damage. You should definitely read that one.

I’ve written a letter to our hospital questioning the procedure, or at least encouraging them to require parental consent, and I’m eagerly awaiting their reply.

See my full disclosure statement here.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

45 thoughts on “Do Newborns Need Sugar Water for Pain Relief?”

  1. Hey, I just thought id leave my input. I am a mother of a baby boy and my spouse is in the marines. We’re fairly young, but while we were stationed overseas, Ive been able to work at the regional medical center since I have my nursing cert. I saw this being used when they had to do tongue clippings and circumcisions or any other procedure on a more painful level than the heel pricks. I understand that many of you women are only at the hospitals for so long while you are there as a patient, but experience ing the work there for over two years has allowed me to work side by side with health care professionals that have more medical knowledge and less emotional attatchment to the babies like many of you mothers do. The sucrose is not harmful to the newborns, and I suggest you do your research on the product before you become so opposed to the idea. You mothers have to stick up for your opinions and I completely agree on not using the sweet water for pricks. But please acknowledge the education that these professionals have when it has proven to be a solution for pain in infants. If you have questions, feel free to ask me. I have no problem answering questions about the usage of sweetease. There is hardly anything worse than someone who is being closeminded when they feel righteous in their beliefs without hearing the facts. Unfortunately, it is often that you come across patients that feel this way when you work in a hospital.

  2. My own son had multiple procedures and surgery before he was 4 months old and they administered Sweat-Ease. I was so desperate for him to have some relief from the pain, that I would have accepted anything. It honestly seemed to have no effect. He was in so much pain that he was a terrible latcher until after he was patched up properly. By the time you wrote this article, there was already conflicting medical studies concerning the efficacy of sucrose water as a pain reliever. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/sep/02/babies-sugar-pain-relief-warning

  3. Jamilyn via Facebook

    Sugar itself is toxic. I wouldnt give it to my child even full grown. Not the white sugar anyway. It is highly addictive and does cause gut issues, as well as the vaccinations. There is a reason its called White Death. ……When I was in the hospital my child would not nurse so they kept feeding the child sugar water. I could not figure out why but I never questioned it because they were the “experts”, you always have the right to question,it is your child.

  4. I haven’t heard of this before. I guess it’s not standard practice in Canada. How do people think sugar = pain relief? Sounds strange to me.
    Your in-your-head karate chops made me laugh out loud. 😀

  5. Kari via Facebook

    Due to my body’s failure to dilate, my three children have been c-sections. Having witnessed, through the nursery window, babies having their heals pricked and then being left alone as they screamed, I knew I never wanted my babies to be left alone with hospital staff, even for a moment. Since from the birth I go to recovery, my husband’s role is to stay with the baby, ensuring that they don’t give them vaccines or stupid things like sugar water. He even gave them their first baths. There is peace in knowing that one of us was with them each moment while they were in the hospital.

  6. Katie – I love your posts & this one is so important. While I’m way beyond babies & not quite to the grandma stage, I’ve been bookmarking important articles for my daughter in what we call the “Granny Bag”. Thanks so much!!

  7. Susan Gearhart

    I polled my senior nursing students about the practice of giving sugar on a pacifier for newborn procedural pain–thinking it cannot still be a practice, but they all said they used or witnessed it in various local (San Francisco bay area) hospitals. The Lancet, a top U.K. medical journal published a study last year showing that sugar a) doesn’t work to relieve pain and b) may cause brain damage.
    One of the least understood phenomena in healthcare is infant pain. As healthcare providers we need to use evidence to back up our practice (about 55% of medicine is said to be evidence-based). We are obliged to consider how, when, and where to change practice when faced with such strong evidence. We do know that there was never good evidence to support using sugar for procedural pain in the first place.
    Another caveat, no one should make decisions on how a substance affects a newborn based on how it affects them as an adult. Babies are not small adults and should not be treated as such. Parents and providers need to back up their hunches, ideas, intuition, and feelings with facts and studies whenever possible. And if it’s not possible, we need to say “no one knows for sure” and make plans to find out.
    The link to an article that discusses the Lancet article is http://www.boston.com/news/health/articles/2010/09/06/sugar_water_may_not_relieve_infants_pain/. For the providers who want to look at the original published research, go to http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)61303-7/fulltext .
    I have been a registered nurse for 33 years. All seasoned providers tell tales of the crazy things we used to do to patients–procedures that have thankfully been discontinued because now we have research and evidence to support our experience and expertise. Years from now we will look back at some of our practices (including giving sugar to babies) and wonder what we were thinking.

    This is a great forum, thank you for reading my post.

    1. Susan,
      Thank you so much! Your article is just what I’ve been looking for, and I’m so happy to hear from someone with experience. I have written a letter to our hospital about this practice after another nurse encouraged me to do so on Facebook, and I’m awaiting their reply.

      Thank you for visiting!
      🙂 Katie

  8. Marcia Wilwerding

    (oops) FOR THE FIRST TIME, carrying a bottle of sugar water with him. He, of course, had no inclination to nurse after having that garbage. I was so disappointed and sad. That was just the last of a long line of disappointments with my first birth/nursing experience. If I had it to do all over again, I’d have mine at home. What a mess. 🙁

    1. Marcia,
      Oh,. how sad! I would have been really, really upset and probably written a terse letter to the hospital. That’s just awful!

  9. Vikki via Facebook

    Snarky??? I’ll give her snarky!! The sugar-water/Sweetease debacle is brought to us by the same medical authorities who recommend that children being treated in the oncology ward fill up on ice-cream, jelly, and, oh… Would you like some more candy with that??? In other words some ning-nongs putting their heads together and thinking, ‘What is the cheapest method of keeping babies quiet?’ Oh, yeah, sugar, well, it keeps everyone else quiet and compliant…. Scientific research: I don’t think so.

  10. Gail via Facebook

    We all have to admit that what comes out of our mouths isn’t always what’s in our heads! Thank God (literally) that we have His Spirit to help control and reign in our unruly tongues!

  11. Excellent self control. I’ve been an RN for 18 years and a lactator for 11 and I would have busted her nose. Seriously.

  12. Joy via Facebook

    I knew it was in fun and you even got some giggles from me. Sometimes people are so unhappy with themselfs they can find something to complain about in anything.

  13. Dori via Facebook

    I thought it was a great article and was very funny. I just had a home birth and am thankful I did not have to watch hospital staff closely while being so tired after birth.

  14. Meg @ Cracking An Egg

    Oi vey.
    “I see mothers come in all the time fully convinced that they have it all together and I’m out to somehow harm them and their babies. Regardless of the science, would 3 drops of sugar water in your baby’s gut have destroyed his health and future? Probably not. ”

    3 drops of sugar water or not, and un-medically trained as we are, it needs to be a parent’s decision, which I think was the whole idea behind Katie’s post.

    And after reading thru the comments several times, it sounds like it’s a consistent practice not JUST for incredibly painful procedures, but for minor things. That shouldn’t be okay.

    I grew up with 2 pediatric nurses for parents, and loved the hospital + people who worked there… But I do have a hard time trusting the judgement of folks who aren’t even willing to listen to something they didn’t learn in CE classes or med school, which has been the consistent case with 80-90% of all medical professionals I’ve dealt with. (And yes, I realize Eve, Jean, and several others who posted HAVE learned great information about true health, but as I said, the ones I’VE dealt with.)

    1. I understand what you’re saying…I argue with fellow pediatricians everyday about these issues and get their criticism too (and they don’t even know I drink raw milk yet!! :)) I think I took Katie’s comment a little too hard because like I told her, I’d just had a “natural living” mom in my office being very rude to my staff because of presumptions about what was going to happen to her baby that day. Anyway, I think Jean’s point was similar to mine that not everyone in the healthcare field is bad… It’s a hard field to be in so we take these things personally. And I should mention that I’ve never been in a newborn nursery where sugar water was given for routine heel sticks so I don’t think it’s all that common. Good discussion though.

  15. Robin via Facebook

    As parents we should have the right to make decisions for our kids… We are headed into a time when we have let go of so much control and given it to gov and such entities it is expected. 23 years age it was not as cool to not have immunizations for your kids. Or wait for circumcision . Or breast feed for that matter I was young (20) and everyone seemed to think they could do whatever…because I did all the above- was looked down upon. And 14 years ago when daughter was born the nurse without concent shot my daughter with immunizations I refused to authorize! I did not sue but told the woman that moms know best Never question that!!!ever!!!:) stay strong! The world is changing!

  16. Brandis via Facebook

    I can’t believe that poster called you snarky. What a…

    hypocrite. I wanted to use another word, but I restrained myself:)

  17. Brandis @ Crunchy Thrify Cool

    I see where the health professional commenters are coming from, but 1) Jean is totally out of line, and 2) it makes me furious that any parent who DOES research is considered an arrogant know it all, but a doctor or nurse who presumes to know it all is a saint. I KNOW I know lay people who know more about healthy birth, breastfeeding, and infant care than all the doctors and nurses I know. And the simple fact that many hospitals use Sweet Ease for simple procedures like heel pricks without even asking the parents only backs up that belief. And Katie has NEVER been snarky (and you are being a total hypocrite by saying so… just because you think you know what you’re talking about doesn’t mean it’s not snarky). She has been honest (I’m all about manners, but they shouldn’t trump honesty) and done more research on thousands of topics YOU know nothing about. But she didn’t present this post with research- it was a personal anecdote. And in the context that she presents, it is completely appropriate and relevant.

    And it is ABSOLUTELY not out of line that she says that in her head she karate chopped the bottle out of the nurses hand. We all have initial involuntary thoughts that we really can’t control. She was simply honest about hers. Had she acted on them, or had she been rude, you would have a point. But she didn’t so you don’t.

    What Jean (and many of the other health professionals who have commented) is ultimately saying is that we should just trust and deffer to our doctors and nurses, because they know everything and stop doing research and learning ourselves. They would love it if we would do that. Not gonna happen here, though!

  18. Shell via Facebook

    Yes, I could tell your tone was in fun. But I could also relate to how deeply you felt about this issue and you have EVERY right to. As a first-time Mum many years ago I allowed various procedures without questioning them, only to find out years later that they may have had a bearing on my first child’s digestive system and general health. By my second child ten years later I was much more informed and, whilst I had had time to digest my research and ‘mellow out’ somewhat, there were times when I morphed into a ninja-chopper too. The world we live in appears to require a little ninja-chopping here and there when the issue is protection of our children from a system that seems faulty in so many ways, oftentimes out of ignorance.

  19. The hospital I went to didn’t try to give my son sugar water during the heel poke. They even mentioned that breastfeeding during the poke would help him be soothed. I left the hospital 24 hrs after having my son so he required a second heel poke at a local lab because they couldn’t do it at 48 hrs in the hospital. At the lab they had to poke his heel 3 times to get the blood they needed and he slept through the entire thing…didn’t even flinch when they poked him. No sugar water needed for him 🙂

  20. Ashley via Facebook

    I told the nurses “no pacifiers” with #1 and then when I saw some pics my MIL took of my son in the nursery I noticed he had a pacifier in his little “crib” (but it was never in there when they brought him to me)! LOL They just do whatever they want, I think. 😉 I didn’t bother saying anything when #2 was born. Oh how I wish I could GET her to take a pacifier!! Haha!

  21. Amanda via Facebook

    I’m a nurse and I took no offense! But then again, I’m super careful to explain things to parents and make sure they approve of what I do because it’s their child, not mine. Also, I would not want my newborn to have an artificial nipple.

  22. I’d say let the baby nurse for comfort during the heel test- that has been shown (and known by Moms) to ease pain, and can only be good for him.

  23. “Don’t put anything in my baby’s mouth without my full and informed conseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeent!”

    Please note – you (or your husband) gave consent to be treated when you were admitted. If you were to sign off on every single procedure, there would be a whole lotta trees being killed for extra legal forms, and staff would be collecting signatures instead of treating patients.

    Do you really want that?

    1. But what about just asking first, instead of just shoving something in a newborn’s mouth? Especially when it’s not necessary? She was right there watching…

  24. That was hilarious. I am 7 mos pregnant, and I am so glad you posted this. I have had not so good experiences with doctors 🙁 and it seems every one I have met over the past few years can’t listen or won’t try hard enough to help with what I want… I haven’t been able to afford my own care just yet, either. Resources are also kind of limited where I live, but I’ve been learning a lot about listening to my body and taking care of myself. My baby won’t be getting the vitamin k shot OR the sugar water. OR the ointment or hep B. EWWW. You could certainly take a vitamin k supplement (or dose up on veggies like chard – with a whopping 700-something percent of your DV of vitamin K) to make sure it gradually and safely makes it into your baby’s system… However, it’s strange to me that they tell you vitamin k is alright to overdose on until the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, and then you can’t have it in large amounts or it may be toxic for the baby. So, I am having trouble understanding why they find it necessary to dose the baby up on it after birth… I am breastfeeding him and getting extra K from veggies, probably. It is better, I think, to gradually introduce that into the baby’s system rather than get this injection that has 20,000 times the amount of needed K for an infant. I’m a healthy momma with plenty of good bacteria in my prenatal, too. I have no idea if that helps the baby pertaining to his own gut,…. but I’m sure it still does benefit him in some way at least since I’m getting them. Besides – I am vegan and sugar can’t be guaranteed to be vegan… just another reason why I don’t want that. Also – I don’t really eat sugar anyways. Haven’t for quite a while now and don’t think I’ll be going back… so glad again that I read this…

  25. that’s what I was thinking…. it makes no sense at ALL to me to give them sugar water because it relieves pain. It’s just a distraction, and I don’t think they need it – like one person said, holding the baby should be enough. ughhhh. I want to have my baby at home……. hopefully I don’t have to be in a hospital. :/

  26. Our nurse asked me to nurse the baby during the PKU. She said that newborns could only think of (maybe she meant react to) one thing at a time. She said if they’re happy sucking, they won’t notice the pain. In any case, it worked.

    We also refused the hep B, vit. K, and eye ointment. With a one baby, I refused the K shot, and they still had trouble getting blood because he was clotting so quickly.

  27. My midwife didn’t offer it when she did the heel poke. DS cried for 2 minutes, then got over it.

  28. So I don’t understand why the vitamin K shot is needed. What happened to babies 1oo years ago? We didn’t have vitamin k shots or sugar water. There must be a reason for the baby being born with low vitamin K, else why would God/nature make it so? My babies don’t get the shot.

  29. I agree that this is complete nonsense. We had the same thing happen and I asked the nurse if I could breast feed my son while she was doing the procedure. She looked at me like I was asking a really bizarre question, but went ahead and let me do it. My son passed through it like a champ with nary a squeak. And when it was all done, he just kept eating.

  30. I appreciate your website a lot, Katie; lots of great research you have done regarding nutrition, and I have used your site often as a reference for feeding my family more healthily. However, I am not thrilled about this article. I have had emotional reactions toward the medical profession after having babies as well, so I am not throwing stones! But I appreciate Jean’s response greatly. I’m a nurse too, and her information was completely accurate. Have we gotten so proud in the Northwest that we read a couple of articles about alternative medicine and think that we know better than those darn doctors, who are probably in cahoots with the drug companies anyways? I don’t think that Sweet Ease or anything for that matter should be given without your consent (and that is a minor procedure for it), but the amount of sugar that your baby is actually taking in is minimal. When my son had his circumcision, he had the Sweet Ease and had zero sign of pain. I believe that it helped. And he didn’t develop gut issues, nipple confusion since I was exclusively breastfeeding, or any other problem that would be cause for hysteria.

  31. It used to amaze me how my kids wouldn’t bat an eyelash for the heel stick and blood draw, but changing their diaper in the hospital was a case for a screaming fit.

  32. I am also a lab technician and have been doing infant heel sticks for over 20 years and we never use sugar water or sweet-ease for just plain old heel sticks.

  33. Actually, I’m one who ASKED for it with all three of my sons but only for when they were circumcised. I can’t find it right now but I thought they also used this in the Bible to help with pain during circumcision. My oldest is 14 and the nurse at that time had never heard of it before. My doctor supported me in doing something to help with the pain. I would not do the sugar thing for a PKU or any test only for something big like circumcision.

  34. Katie – Thank you so much for posting stuff like this! I’m having my first in March and it’s so helpful to get a preview of what sort of routine procedures to expect. I am committed to giving my baby the healthiest, most natural start possible, but when you’ve never been through the birthing process before it’s hard to know where to even begin when it comes to birth plans and such.

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