Data from 1000 newborns in 11 studies was analyzed by researchers where the effectiveness of breast milk and breast-feeding was compared to a pacifier or sugar water in easing the pain experienced by infants when blood samples were taken from them.
According to lead reviewer Prakeshkumar Shah, a neonatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto "The babies who were breast-fed experienced less pain, compared to not giving anything, or just swaddling them or a placebo of sterile water."
It was found that breast-feeding and sugar water were about equally effective in reducing pain.
While it was still unclear how breast-feeding helps to reduce the pain, researches theorize that factors such as the mother's comforting presence; skin-to-skin contact; the sweetness of breast milk and diversion of the baby's attention probably play a role.
Shah noted that hospitals do vary in the kind of pain relief used for this procedure. In fact some health workers and parents believe that the procedure is not so painful as to require pain relief.
The review findings have also suggested that breast-feeding may even offer a perfectly safe and natural method of pain relief for premature babies, who are often made to undergo many painful procedures.
Shah said, "Right now, quite a lot of hospitals have adopted the practice of giving sugar water to those babies for analgesia. But we don't know what happens to them long term by exposing them to high concentrations of sugar."
He added, "I think more research is needed on the effectiveness of breast-feeding and breast milk for those babies." "What we are proposing in this review is to do further research on those sick babies that are admitted to the (neonatal intensive care) unit who are exposed to multiple painful procedures."