The next time your infant needs vaccines, nursing during the doctor’s visit could ease the pain, according to a new study.
Data on breastfeeding and infant pain during needle sticks was examined from 10 different studies with a total of 1,066 infants from ages one to 12 months. On average, breastfeeding infants cried for 38 seconds less than those who didn’t nurse during vaccinations, researchers reported in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
The pain scores, based on observations of infants’ behavior, were lower when the infants were breastfed during needle sticks, compared to when they were not. Lead study author Denise Harrison, a researcher at the University of Ottawa and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said the effects of breastfeeding hasn’t been clear in infants past the newborn period.
“We already knew that breastfeeding reduced pain during blood collection in newborn babies,” Harrison said to Reuters via email. “However we did not know if the same effects would be evident in older babies beyond the newborn period.”
The authors said it is difficult to gauge discomfort in young infants, and breastfeeding didn’t consistently change physical indications of pain, such as heart rate. Nursing did seem to be more effective in relieving pain than sugar water, pain creams or sprays at the injection site, and maternal cuddling or massage, according to data from four studies that were reviewed.
Breastfeeding is suggested to be an effective pain reliever because it boosts oxytocin, a hormone linked to calmness and pain reduction, in both mothers and infants. Barbara Morrison, a researcher at Wichita State University School of Nursing in Kansas who wasn’t involved with the research, said oxytocin production can help during the vaccination process.
“Additionally, the oxytocin calm decreases stress levels, making infants more relaxed,” Morrison said. “The more relaxed one is the less the sensations of pain. Being separated from mother during a painful procedure causes the infant to feel abandoned, significantly increasing their stress.”
The previously published studies reviewed needle stick procedures such as vaccinations, blood draws and intravenous line insertions. The 38-second reduced crying time during vaccinations was found in a pooled analysis of six studies of 547 infants who were breastfed, given water or offered no interventions during the shots.
None of the studies reported adverse events linked with breastfeeding. Study limitations included a lack of data on breastfeeding for blood samples and drip insertions, along with little information on infants receiving 12-month vaccinations, the authors said.
While breastfeeding didn’t change physical indications of pain, it did reduce behavioral responses of crying and pain scores during and after the vaccinations. The World Health Organization changed its guidance on vaccinations last year and recommended breastfeeding for the first time.
“If culturally acceptable, breastfeeding of infants should be done during or shortly before the vaccination session,” the organization said in a statement.
Harrison said the study shows that breastfeeding plays more than one role for an infant.
“Breastfeeding can provide much more than nourishment. It provides comfort and it reduces pain,” she said. “This is not just about distracting the child from the needle. We know that skin-to-skin contact is a factor, along with the heartbeat, the sound and smell of the mother and the pleasant taste of the breast milk. There are also endorphins in the breast milk that have an impact, but we do not know exactly the role they play.”
Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.