This post was originally going to be about the effects of sugar on the brain and our appetites. But I figured no one would care about that. Virtually everyone cares about babies, though. So I figured that 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 beta-endorphin, which stops the distress and promotes a sense of wellbeing. Even in rat pups.

Did 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 pre-term neonates. Pain responses in the newborns are measured by heart rate, crying time, facial activity, and other behaviors.

Sedation was once the most often-used method for dealing with neonatal pain. That”™s been replaced by non-pharmacological procedures for pain relief. 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.

I started hearing about the work on newborns and sucrose while doing research for my dissertation. I also heard it presented in a couple of seminars I attended. I was worried then, and even more concerned that it”™s ongoing.

It”™s only possible to consider sugar a non-narcotic intervention for newborns if you ignore its properties as an addictive drug. 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?

The VMH is the main satiety center in the brain. Satiety is the feeling we”™ve had enough food and don”™t need more. Beta-endorphin (typically called “endorphins”) inhibits the satiety effect of the VMH. That can increase food intake, particularly for someone who”™s sensitive to the effects.

Sugar triggers 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 beta-endorphin and other brain chemicals — virtually guarantees that sugar intake will continue long-term, and probably 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 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 newborn infants any type of narcotic painkillers. I wish we were less cavalier about sugar. It”™s as close to a narcotic as it can be, but easy to dismiss because it”™s disguised as food. (Maybe in name only, but still.)

Ending babies”™ pain is obviously a good thing. Sugar seems innocent and harmless when used in that way, but it isn”™t.

Joan Kent

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