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Breastfeeding May Reduce Pain During Blood Tests in Preterm Infants


Breastfeeding provides much more than nourishment: it can also reduce pain response. A new study found that preterm infants had lower behavioral pain scores when they were breastfed during blood tests.

Breastfeeding better than sweets to reduce pain

Among infants born at full term, breastfeeding is used during painful procedures such as taking blood samples because it has been shown to reduce the pain response by 80 to 90 percent and to not cause side effects. It was not known, however, whether this approach would be successful in preterm infants.

Preterm infants in neonatal intensive care units can suffer behavioral and physiological problems, including changes in sensitivity to pain and their stress arousal systems, if pain is poorly managed. Minor, common procedures such as pricking for blood tests are necessary but painful, and typical pain-reducing attempts such as giving the infant something sweet or a pacifier are only moderately effective.

To determine if breastfeeding during the taking of a blood sample would reduce the pain response in preterm infants, investigators from the Child & Family Research Institute at BC Children’s Hospital and The University of British Columbia (UBC) studied 57 infants born at 30 to 36 weeks gestational age. Half the infants were breastfed during blood sampling and the others were given a pacifier.

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The infants were videotaped during the procedure to document their responses. According to lead investigator Liisa Holsti, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, UBC, “For infants whose breastfeeding skills are inconsistent, it is unlikely to mitigate pain effectively.”

However, among the infants who were more skilled at breastfeeding, behavioral pain scores were significantly lower. The investigators also noted another benefit: blood collection took less time in the breastfed infants than in those given a pacifier, which made the procedure more efficient.

One concern about using breastfeeding as a way to mitigate pain during a procedure in preterm infants is that the babies may learn to equate breastfeeding with pain, which would hamper their ability to feed effectively, but no negative impact was seen in this study. Professor Holsti noted that “our findings support further research on the effects of breastfeeding for more mature feeders over repeated events to assess both the short- and long-term benefits of the treatment.”

Holsti L et al. Pain 2011 Nov; 152(11); doi:10.1016/j.pain.2011.07.022

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons