Would You Give Sugar to Your Baby?
By Joan Kent, PhD
Virtually everyone cares about babies, so I figured they – you – would care about babies' brains, too.
Much research has been done on rat pups and sugar. When rat pups are separated from their mothers, for example, they cry. When researchers give them sugar, they stop crying. Sugar triggers a release of endorphins (beta-endorphin), which stops the distress and promotes a sense of wellbeing. Even in rat pups.
Do you know this information is being used on human infants?
Newborn infants are subjected to a variety of painful procedures: heel puncture for blood sampling and many more. The painful procedures are even more numerous and varied in preterm neonates. Pain responses in newborns are measured by heart rate, crying time, facial grimacing, motor activity, and other behaviors.
The painful procedures may number as many as 15 a day over the first few weeks of life. With sucrose administered for each procedure, the volume of sugar has been calculated as equal to that found in half a can of Coke Classic per day – all administered during a period of rapid brain development.
Once Upon a Time, They Used Sedation
Sedation was once the most often-used method for dealing with neonatal pain. It's been replaced by non-pharmacological pain relief procedures. Some of them include pacifiers, position changes, swaddling, cradling in the arms, and reducing tactile stimulation. It's an area of disagreement and controversy.
Using sucrose has been recommended and studied fairly extensively. Sucrose has been tested as a stand-alone treatment and also paired with other treatments, such as pacifiers, human milk and anesthetic cream.
Bottom line: Sucrose seems to be effective by itself, and all other treatments seem to work better when paired with sucrose.
What About Sugar Addiction?
I started reading about the work on newborns and sucrose while doing research for my dissertation. I also heard it presented in a couple of seminars. I was worried then and feel even more concerned now because it's ongoing.
Some researchers are investigating this and have decided that sugar is operating more as a sedative than as a painkiller. Is that supposed to be better?
The only way to consider sugar a non-narcotic intervention for newborns is to ignore its properties as an additive drug.
Will It Affect Obesity Rates?
The main satiety center in the brain is the VMH. Satiety is the feeling we've had enough food and don't need more for a while. Endorphins (beta-endorphin) inhibit the satiety effect of the VMH. That can increase food intake, particularly for someone who's sensitive to the endorphin effect.
Sugar triggers endorphins (beta-endorphin), as mentioned above. Sugar can also bring on cravings later that day or for the next day or two. Addiction to sugar – a result of endorphins and other brain chemicals – virtually guarantees that sugar intake will continue long-term, and probably increase.
Since that's typically genetic, some newborns may start out with that sensitivity.
And what are the implications for the future? We have an obesity epidemic now. What might happen if the practice becomes so widespread that – from birth – whenever there's pain, there's sugar?
Looking Ahead to the Implications
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 procedural stuff with infants seems harmless. And I seem like an alarmist crank. (No worries; I've been called worse.)
We would never even think of giving neonates any type of narcotic painkillers. I wish we were less casual about sugar. It's as close to a narcotic as it can be, but easy to dismiss because it's disguised as 'food.'
Ending babies' pain is obviously a good thing. Sugar seems innocent and harmless when used in that way, but it isn't. To call sugar a gateway drug is hardly an exaggeration.
Sugar isn't just a health issue in infants. It has become a health issue that affects adults, especially when it's an addiction. It can make it difficult to lose weight, reduce blood pressure or cholesterol, stabilize glucose levels, and/or prevent diabetes. The epidemic of metabolic conditions matters.
And there's the current epidemic of opiate addiction. What might happen in that regard if we hook babies on sugar?
We need to start at the beginning of an infant's life to influence these facts and factors in the most intelligent and forward-thinking way. Half a can of Coke Classic a day is far too much to ignore in newborns.
Fortunately, some researchers are recommending not using sucrose in this way without further investigation. Here's hoping they put out the word to stop the practice.
Does this make you angry? I have plans to put together a Facebook group for moms (or anyone) concerned about stopping this practice. Would you like to be part of it? Please drop me a note at drjoan@LastResortNutrition.com . I'd love to have your support and help.