This article was originally going to be about the effects of sugar on the brain and our appetite. But he wasn’t sure that anyone cared about that. However, virtually everyone cares about babies. So I thought that they, you, would also care about the brains of babies.
Much research has been done on baby rats and sugar. When rat cubs are separated from their mothers, for example, they cry. When researchers give them sugar, they stop crying. Sugar triggers a beta-endorphin release, which stops distress and promotes a sense of well-being. Even in rat pups.
Did you know that this information is being used in human babies?
Newborn babies undergo a variety of painful procedures: heel stick to collect blood samples, and many more. Painful procedures are even more numerous and varied in premature newborns. Responses to pain in newborns are measured by heart rate, cry time, facial activity, and other behaviors.
Sedation was once the most widely used method of treating neonatal pain. That has been replaced by non-drug pain relief procedures. Some of them include pacifiers, position changes, diapers, arm cradles, and reduced tactile stimulation. It is an area of disagreement and controversy.
The use of sucrose has been recommended and studied quite extensively. Sucrose has been tested as a stand-alone treatment and has also been combined with other treatments, such as pacifiers, breast milk, and numbing cream.
Bottom line: sucrose appears to be effective on its own, and all other treatments seem to work better when combined with sucrose.
I started hearing about the work on newborns and sucrose while doing research for my thesis. I also heard him presented at a couple of seminars that I attended. I was concerned then and I am even more concerned that it is ongoing.
Sugar can only be considered a non-narcotic intervention for newborns if its properties as an addictive drug are ignored. What are the implications for the future? We now have an obesity epidemic. What could happen if the practice becomes so widespread that, from birth, whenever there is pain, there is sugar?
VMH is the main satiety center of the brain. Satiety is the feeling that we have had enough food and do not need more. Beta-endorphin (typically called “endorphins”) inhibits the satiety effect of VMH. That can increase food intake, especially for someone who is sensitive to the effects.
Sugar triggers beta-endorphin, as mentioned above. Sugar can also trigger cravings later that day or for a day or two. Sugar addiction, the result of beta-endorphin and other brain chemicals, virtually guarantees that sugar intake will continue in the long term and will likely increase.
If you don’t take sugar seriously as an addictive drug, if you ignore its ability to increase appetite in several different ways, then this procedure with babies seems harmless. And I look like a crazy alarmist. (Don’t worry, I’ve been called worse.)
We wouldn’t even think about giving newborns any kind of narcotic pain relievers. I wish we were less arrogant about sugar. It’s the closest thing to a narcotic it can be, but it’s easy to dismiss because it’s disguised as food. (Maybe in name only, but still).
Obviously, ending baby pain is a good thing. Sugar looks innocent and harmless when used that way, but it is not.